Last night, I was sitting on our couch, watching something on TV when suddenly I experienced a flashback from a traumatic memory that happened decades ago. My heart was racing, my breathing was short and shallow. Aside from the physical discomfort, I could not understand why this visual entered my mind. I had not thought about it for years and had done a lot of work to heal from the incident. I experienced no triggering visuals, smells, or sounds. The thought just popped into my mind.
One thing that I have learned from my work learning to cope with my trauma (and from my jiu-jitsu practice) was to not run away from discomfort.
I did a quick reality check: I was safe. I was not in any danger. I was in good health (aside from my annoying lingering allergic asthma symptoms) and I was cognitively alert.
So what was it?
How come I was experiencing such a severe flashback when there was no obvious trigger?
I was about to pick up my phone and text a friend to share what was happening to me, but then I stopped. I thought about what questions I would ask a friend if they had called me up. One of the questions would probably be: What worries are on your mind?
That was it.
Suddenly, just thinking about that one question brought everything to light.
I have an event coming up in a couple of weeks that is quite important and will be a tough challenge on many fronts. While I am looking forward to it, I am definitely feeling anxious about it. I’ve been reminding myself to stay confident, trust my knowledge and my preparation, and to do my very best. I know I’m putting in the effort to prepare. I also know that it is normal to feel some level of anxiety. I’ve been quite mindful, however, of not letting that anxiety spiral out of control as I know that will be counterproductive.
The mind, however, is an interesting thing. It’s like it knows the effort I’m putting in to stay calm, relaxed, and confident — so it seems like it just bypassed all that effort and pushed the thought: One way to rattle her is to think of an event that will stress her out even more than the upcoming event.
That was the only explanation I could come up with for why I had such a severe flashback. The only way to trump my current anxiety is to think of something that would prompt an even bigger reaction.
This is the first time something like this has ever happened to me. I know what most of my triggers are and even if there isn’t something specific, with a bit of investigation, I can usually identify what has caused a flashback. However, never before had I had a flashback with no actual trigger. I never thought that my own mind would produce this type of reaction just to not stress over something else. Has that ever happened to you?
Anyway. Once I understood my thought pattern, I relaxed. I was still bewildered that it even happened at all, but at least I knew why it had happened. I know that if I hadn’t identified the trigger, it would have made me feel very vulnerable and probably a bit anxious and paranoid with the worry that the flashbacks could occur at any time.
I know that in the end I am in control of my thoughts. It’s not always easy to control them, but I know that it is possible. Staying calm and having a focused, logical approach to confront my automatic thoughts is a strategy that has been working for me and it’s what I used to help me break down what was happening to me this time as well.
I have to admit, my first reaction to my flashback was one of fear. I felt nauseous and could see me quickly falling off the edge and getting to the point where the worry and anchor of past events would just hold me in that negative space.
Having my first anchoring question being ‘Are you safe?’ is a really helpful one to have. I’ve established that as my number one priority. In most cases, the answer to that question will be yes. So that starts me off on a positive footing when it comes to coping with my anxieties. From there, I continue to break my thoughts down and assess them realistically. To help me avoid the temptation to over-dramatize what is happening, I usually put myself in someone else’s shoes (usually one of my best friends as I know I can trust them with caring, honest perspectives and advice) and think about what they would tell me. Sometimes it helps to write this all down, but I’ve found that it isn’t always necessary. If thinking about my situation doesn’t really help, then I know that I can reach out to someone and talk it out.
As disturbing as yesterday’s incident was, I am really pleased with the way I was able to deal with and decipher what was happening to me. It’s not always this straightforward and there are many times when going through the deciphering process can feel uncomfortable. However, strength and recovery lie in facing that discomfort.
If you can relate but you feel alone, don’t be afraid to seek help and reach out to someone you can trust. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to heal is an incredibly powerful thing.
All images are from The Right Side of Thought by Lawrence Yeo.