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Sunday, June 8, 2014

Flashbacks: Day 8 of National PTSD Awareness Month

The most well known form of re-experiencing is flashbacks. This is when you feel you are back in the trauma of war or rape or whatever you have lived through.
Everyone knows about this symptom. When an event happened so fast and was so overwhelming, it stays in the reptile brain as bodily memories, emotions, flashes of visual information, smells, sounds, touches. Any one of these can trigger a flashback. Smells and sights are especially triggering because of the direct connection with the brain. This is another form of the brain warning you of danger, but it can also cause danger if you think you are somewhere else for a few minutes and act on that.
One of the biggest problems with PTSD is that survival skills that have kept you alive can become your biggest problems later. This one is mostly a problem.
One of the funniest moments in our life, Bob's and mine, of trying to help people with PTSD happened when he was giving a writing workshop years ago at the Portland, OR VAMC. One of the guys told the group that when he got back from Vietnam he went to a community college and for English he had to write a journal. He got an F on the first one, and said to himself, "F*ck her, I'll make it personal. I'll write one of my night mares." He did. She corrected it and handed it back. He rewrote it. She corrected it and handed it back. He rewrote it. She gave it a good grade. He rewrote it a couple of more times just to make it completely accurate. Then he noticed he was not having the nightmare anymore. That night Bob said to me, "You know I have not had any nightmares since I wrote Chickenhawk. I never noticed..." That is what happens if you can turn those non verbal memories into some form of narrative memory, by writing, talking or any other way that works for you.
If someone is having a flashback, don't jump them. Try to tell them they are safe at home.
One of the quickest ways to get out of a flashback is to carry a safe scent with you, like vanilla or lavender, something you identify with as a good smell and that has nothing to do with the war zone or whatever danger you faced. The direct connection between brain and nose can help you short circuit the flashback.
The next symptom is when you have intense reactions to things that remind you of the trauma or symbolize it in some way. I will talk about that tomorrow.

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