Flashbacks are intense emotions or physical sensations that can surface when non- verbal memories of trauma are triggered. Because this kind of memory is not stored in the verbal parts of the brain, it often seems to come "out of the blue," with the survivor at a loss to understand or explain what is happening.
With children, you may notice a glazed, "deer in the headlights" look, disorganized behavior, or sudden acting out while seeming to "not be there."
Below is a "menu" of things that you can do to help reduce the intensity of a flash back and help bring you or your child back into the "here and now." There is no one "right" strategy that works for everyone. Try one that appeals to you and if it doesn't help, try a different one. You can tell if it's helping if you feel calmer, more grounded, and more present in the "here and now" after the activity. For a child, you may notice that they seem to have "come back," or that they seem calmer, have better eye contact, and are and more able to respond to you.
You will notice several things these activities have in common. Many of them emphasize steady rhythms and/or breathing, as well as repetitive actions. I will explain the reasons for this below so that you can understand what makes them work. With that information, you may be able to find or create your own additional grounding tools. If ANY activity makes you feel worse, stop and try something else!
Why the emphasis on breathing and steady rhythms?
During trauma and during flashbacks, our body's rhythms are disrupted. For example, heart rates become rapid, breathing becomes shallow and rapid. This is part of the "fight or flight" response. Purposely slowing down your breathing and the rhythm of your movement interrupts the fight or flight response and allows you to choose how you would like to respond. Singing and chanting are included in part because people tend to breath deeply when they are singing. Yoga and tai chi also emphasize focusing on your breathing. Studies have shown yoga to be very helpful for trauma survivors.
Why do so many of these activities involve repetitive action?
Repetition also helps to reestablish a steady rhythm. In addition, repetitive action requires a light focus, but not a lot of thought or decision making. This helps bring you into the "here and now" while leaving you enough mental energy to re-group.
Why do some of these activities use simple math and / or counting?
Flashbacks occur when traumatic memories that are stored in the limbic system of your brain are triggered. Doing simple math activities the frontal lobes of your brain, so it shifts your brain into a different "gear."
Grounding tools for all ages:
Listening, singing, dancing or drumming to music that has a regular, steady beat (not too fast or too slow)
Doing simple math problems, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication tables, and counting (either backwards or forwards) by different numbers (2's, 3's, etc.).
Any rhythmic activity, including knitting or crocheting, even coloring (for adults, there are books of complex coloring designs, such as Coloring Mandala)
Walking a labyrinth pattern or tracing your finger on a labyrinth pattern (two of the many excellent sources of labyrinth images on the web are: ispiritual.com and www.pathsofpeace.com).
Look at your feet; say out loud the color of whatever's on your feet (the color of your shoes, etc.). Then name the color of five other objects in the room.
Name 10 objects in the room.
Notice one object in the room that appeals to you or comforts you. Name 3 things about that object that you like.
Breath in deeply; slowly blow out an imaginary candle in front of you to the count of eight (with children, you can use a finger as the "candle"). If it is hard to "blow out the candle" slowly, try the following:
Breath in deeply; blow out an imaginary candle in front of you to the count of two; on the next breath, blow out the candle to the count of four, then six, then eight.
Feel your feet on floor; wiggle your toes, send your breath all the way down into your toes. Be aware of every part of your foot that feels pressure as it touches the floor.
If there is a place that you feel safe, go to that place. Walk around or just sit and breath, Notice the sights, smells, sounds, temperatures, and textures around you. Remember to breath steadily. If you are walking, notice the sensations in your feet as you walk.
For teens and adults:
Use self-talk to bring yourself back into the "here and now" and remind yourself that you are safe in this moment. "My name is … I am in (name where you are). Today is (name the day of the week or the date)... I am safe right now because..."
Repeat a phrase that acknowledges your feeling while bringing you back into the present moment. A good example is, "This is upsetting, but it's not happening now." While saying the phrase, you can also use any of the following tapping methods:
Cross your arms in front of you and tap on opposite knees (right fingers tap left knee, left fingers tap right knee)
Tap the fleshy outside part of one hand with one or two fingers of the other hand
Alternately tap your toes or march your feet on the floor
Chanting - By "chant," I mean any short, repetitive song. Chants can be spiritual ("Hallelujah" or "Om Shanti Om") or non spiritual ("Row, Row, Row Your Boat"). Grounding chants should be:
- In harmony with whatever spiritual beliefs you may have
NOTE: If your abuse was perpetrated by someone who masqueraded as a "spiritual leader," choose a chant that is NOT associated with that experience or choose a different activity
Before your child is ready to do any of the activities below, you may first need to get his or her attention. You can try talking to the child in a calm, steady voice, or softly repeat the child's name as needed (unless this appears to agitate the child). It may help to name the feeling that you imagine your child is having in simple terms. "It looks like you're having an icky feeling right now" or "it looks like your brain just went someplace else. Let's try to help you feel better." Some children can identify ahead of time things they can do "when you get that weird feeling" or "when you go away in your brain." This empowers them to be part of the solution. Activities that may help include:
Games with rhythm and hand-clapping, like "Miss Mary Mack"
Marching / stomping around the room or in place
Marching with the child while child controls the "speed dial"
Singing simple, repetitive songs or saying nursery rhymes
Pretend to walk through different textures with the child (jello, warm sand, thick mud, marshmallows, ice, swimming through the ocean like a fish). Give your child the option to name some of the textures.
Pretend there are magnets under the floor connected to magnets on the bottom of your and your child's feet. Have the child control the "magnet strength" by raising a hand higher for stronger magnets and lower for weaker magnets. Walk with the child around the room feeling the different "magnet strengths." Have the child "turn off" the magnets or lower the "magnet strength" all the way down to the ground to end the activity.