Written by: Kaycee Beglau, PsyD
Whether it’s a friend, relative, or partner, we sometimes find ourselves with someone who suddenly begins to experience the acute effects of trauma. This typically presents as sudden fear or panic, flashbacks, intrusive negative thoughts related to the trauma, or dissociative states where the person appears to “not really be there” anymore. Of course, these experiences may be frightening, confusing, and overwhelming for the person experiencing them, and they may also be for the person witnessing them as well. If you are in a relationship with someone who frequently experiences these symptoms in your presence, it may be beneficial and empowering to have a sense of what might be helpful for the person in that situation.
However, it is important to note that the purpose of this article is to highlight some quick and concrete strategies to help the person re-orient or “ground” during or after an acute trauma reaction, and it is not intended to imply that anyone in a personal relationship with another trauma survivor should take on the role of being an actual therapist. Think of the information in this article as a “first aid kit” for flashbacks – it’s to help you when you need it and should not be used in place of actual treatment from a trained professional.
What to Look For:
What to Do:
1. DO NOT TOUCH someone (even a loved one) in an active flashback.
This may be extremely triggering for them and the physical touch may inadvertently be experienced as part of the traumatic memory/flashback. As they are starting to come out of it and are becoming more oriented, it’s ok to ask permission to touch them (for example, placing a hand on their shoulder, a safe embrace, or using touch to guide the person to a better location). If they say “no” or appear to shutter or recoil, respect this as an indication the person does not want to be touched at that time.
2. Do not ask them to talk about the flashback details.
It’s ok to ask if they are having a bad memory or if they feel like something bad is happening to them right now. It’s important to keep in mind that if a person is having a flashback, they are overwhelmed and flooded. This is not the time to try to get them to talk about anything related to the trauma. They need help coming back to the present moment, regulating their nervous system, and feeling safe again.
3. Orient to present time and surroundings.
Identify yourself and announce where you are and say something present-oriented, such as your name and relation to the person, even if they know you well. Let them know where you are and remind them they are safe in the present moment. For example: “Laura, this is Sarah, your sister. You are here with me in your house in Florida. It’s May, 2019. It’s just me and you and nothing bad is happening to you right now. You’re safe here with me.”
4. Use a warm, but firm voice to give instructions.
Again, continue to use a warm, but firm voice consistently. The person may be relying on the presence of a supportive voice to “guide” them out of the flashback experience. You can continue to say things like:
Key Points to Keep in Mind:
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