Not everyone realizes the differences between flashbacks & repressed memories returning, so I thought today I would explain them.
Repressed memories are memories of events so traumatic, you were unable to deal with them at the time they happened. To cope, almost immediately, you unconsciously pushed it to the dark recesses of your mind, & forgot about it. Then some time later (could be months, could be years later), something triggered a reminder of the event. The trigger could be anything- a facial expression, a scent, the sight of something that resembles an item that was there when the event happened or a sound. When the trigger forces the memory back to your conscious mind, suddenly you remember what happened. It feels the same as remembering anything else you forgot in the sense that you are well aware it is simply a memory.
Flashbacks are quite different. Flashbacks aren’t necessarily something you forgot. You may or may not remember the event before the flashback. The main difference between repressed memories & flashbacks is flashbacks feel like you’re reliving the event. For me, this is what makes flashbacks so much worse than repressed memories- the feeling of reliving a traumatic event while trying to stay in reality. Flashbacks can be triggered by something, such as the soldier who has flashbacks when he hears fireworks, but sometimes they simply happen without an obvious trigger. Also different than repressed memories are the physical symptoms that can accompany flashbacks, such as elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, sweating or chills, & trembling. My husband has seen me have flashbacks many times, & even so, he can’t always tell when it happens. I tend to get very quiet & still. Sometimes I cry, sometimes not. Flashbacks aren’t always obvious to those witnessing someone have them. Not everyone having a flashback is vocal or shows obvious physical signs when they happen.
If you’re having a flashback, it is vital for you to know how to ground yourself so you stay in reality rather than get lost in the awful memory, which obviously is different than having a repressed memory return to the forefront of your mind. Grounding techniques basically assault your senses, which forces your mind to focus on them instead of the flashback. Touching something with an extreme texture such as a soft fuzzy blanket, silk or even burlap can help. Some people swear by holding ice cubes or stomping their feet hard on the ground. Smelling something with a strong scent can help too. Lavender is good because not only is it strong, it has anti-anxiety properties. A strongly scented cologne, perfume or soap can help.
I’ve found that pets can be very helpful while having a flashback, even if they aren’t specifically trained to be service animals. While taking my cat, Sabrina, to the vet when she was a baby, I drove us past a place I used to work when I was a teenager. Looking at the building, I immediately had a flashback to a time when my mother screamed at & berated me in the parking lot. (Thankfully, I was stopping at a red light when it began- I can’t imagine having to deal with a flashback while driving!) As I sat there & tried to ground myself, Sabrina reached over & scratched my hand. Not bad, but it was enough to jolt me out of the flashback. She’s never scratched me before or since, but I’m grateful she did that day. Her brother, Zippy, will get in my face & head bonk me to get my attention. Neither are trained service animals, but they instinctively know what their mommy needs.