I’m excited and honored to once again welcome one of my good friends, and Sexual Abuse Recovery Coach, Rachel Grant.

Rachel has joined me several times before on the podcast, and it’s always an amazing time of education, validation, and encouragement. Her passion for helping trauma survivors has no equal, and her dedication to advocacy is something that is so needed today.  I know I personally have learned a great deal from her insight, as have so many others.

rachel grant - coach helping survivors of sexual abuse - podcast with surviving my past

Rachel Grant, M.A. Counseling Psychology

The topic of our chat in this podcast, centers around the topic of Flashbacks. That dreaded 4 letter word, so to speak, that can make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. Even the very thought of having a Flashback can instantly bring on overwhelming feelings of anxiety and distress…and that’s simply the thought of having one, let alone actually experiencing flashbacks.

For trauma survivors, one of the biggest keys to effectively dealing with flashbacks is to understand them.  To figure out why they happen, what’s going on in our brain before, during, and after one occurs.

Sounds logical enough, right? To figure out why something is happening, just go out and research it and gain a better understanding of it…yet for trauma survivors, that can be a very scary thing to consider doing. After all, dealing with a flashback is bad enough, and now you want me to go and read more about it?

The answer is yes, but not just read more about it, we must analyze them on a personal level.  We have to learn and develop tools and coping skills, for our survivor toolbox, because if we don’t, we continue to be at their mercy, over and over.  So as difficult as living with flashbacks is, it’s even more discomforting to know that there are things we can do but yet are afraid to try.

In this conversation, Rachel and I start out by breaking down what a flashback really is, and what’s happening in our brain when we experience one.  Even if you’ve done research, or you’ve experienced more flashbacks that you can count, I’ll bet you can take away some great information from what Rachel shares, especially how it relates to trauma recovery.

We also talk about how essentially, not all flashbacks are bad. Yep, that’s right my friends, not every flashback is something negative.

As we discuss on the show, every thing in life that you experience, no matter how big or small, is being encoded by our brain. It’s being taken in and processed, and neural pathways are developed. It doesn’t have to be a trauma experience, it can be something as simple as the first time you visited the beach, or the mountains, or the first time you went to grandma’s house for Christmas dinner. Anything and everything is cataloged in our mind, and can be recalled in an instant based circumstances that we encounter.

For example, you walk into a bakery and you smell freshly prepared apple pie; that can trigger a flashback of you remembering Christmas dinner at grandma’s house, because her house always smelled like the best apple pie ever.  That first time you remember being at grandma’s house could have been 20, 30, 40 years ago, but your brain has cataloged that smell and the events of being at her house, so in the future when you come across that scent, you’re like…”man I remember the holidays at grandma’s.   That is a flashback.  Again, not a traumatic one, it’s simply recalling a memory from the past.

The same goes for trauma survivors, the flashbacks can also be brought on by any of our 5 senses, triggering a memory of abuse. A certain smell or sound, seeing something that reminds you of your abuser. Tasting a certain type of food or drink, or feeling the texture of a particular type of fabric, just to name a few.  So it’s important to understand what a flashback truly is, a memory, and we experience them all the time and probably don’t even realize it. Yet for survivors, we often times equate them to trauma specifically.

When you experience a flashback, you are recalling something from the past. It’s not happening right now, although it can certainly feel like it. That’s where Rachel also explains about the importance of grounding ourselves, and questioning the situation surrounding the flashback.

As you take this proactive approach each time you experience a flashback, one of the easiest ways to begin to re-train our brains and bodies when dealing with one is to ask yourself, or say to yourself:

  • Am I safe right now, is this really happening?
  • Where are these thoughts coming from?
  • This is a memory, it not happening in real life.
  • I am having a flashback right now.

Over time, and with practice, simply taking the time to analyze the situation can greatly ease the intensity and frequency of flashbacks. Remember, you can’t just do it once and be like, “ok I’m good now.”   It takes repetition to retrain our brains to handle trauma differently.

In addition, the more we practice these and other strategies that Rachel talks about, we start to gain more awareness and control over how we react. In time, we can start to see when a potential situation might be triggering and figure out what to do before the flashback ever happens. Believe me friends, that is life changing…and I speak from personal experience.

understanding flashbacks - with rachel grant, sexual abuse recovery coach

We also discuss the brain’s warning systems and how it’s designed to keep us safe. As Rachel points out, the warning system is more concerned with speed, rather than accuracy. It wants to immediately identify a situation and if it’s unsafe, it needs to alert us so we can react and get out of harms way.

The problem is, for trauma survivors, our warning system is on all the time. We are on a heightened state of alert 24/7. So when we get triggered by a sound or smell for example, those cataloged memories  are lit up because our brain equates that sound or smell with something from the past, a traumatic event in this case. Since all of the memories in our mind crisscross and intertwine, we take something as ordinary as an everyday occurrence and immediately begin to recall it in relation to the trauma.

Before we know it we’re frozen, spinning out, and paralyzed with the events of the past that now seem like they are happening in real-time, all over again.

In addition, Rachel talks about the importance of regulating our breathing, and how forcing ourselves to immediately try to take deep breaths in an effort to calm down, can actually do more harm than good in the midst of a flashback. It’s more important to take notice of how we are breathing first, then analyze the situation, and work towards slowly getting our breathing back to a normal state and then take some deep breaths when we are comfortable in doing so.

Another technique we discuss is “working through the 5 senses”.  Essentially put your hand up in front of your face, and using all 5 fingers, go through each of your 5 senses and take stock of what’s around and what you are experiencing, 1 finger for each sense. It’s a great grounding and awareness tool that you can use whenever you need it.

That’s just the tip of iceberg my friend! We cover all of this and so much more, so grab those headphones or plug us into your car speakers, and join Rachel Grant and myself and we discuss, share, and encourage you as a trauma survivor that there is hope in dealing with flashbacks.

You don’t have feel like they are a life sentence of reliving trauma.

Thank again for joining me, Rachel. It’s always a pleasure and I look forward to our next time together on the podcast.


Learn more about Rachel Grant’s Coaching Program – Beyond Surviving, her book, and all of the great resources she provides,  be sure to check out her website, RachelGrantCoaching.com.