View Full Version : How to handle someone in the midst of a post traumatic flashback

10-27-2018, 05:42 AM
How would/should someone handle someone else they care about having a pretty significant post traumatic flashback right in front of them? My male protagonist just woke up to find the female protagonist in the midst of one, she is completely out of touch with reality at the moment, reliving something horrible and literally clawing at the walls.

What is the best way to approach someone at that moment? My male protag knows a bit about PTSD as he's suffered it himself to a lesser degree, but he's never been confronted with having to help someone else.

10-29-2018, 03:33 AM
I don't have PTSD, nor have I ever helped someone through a flashback, so someone please PLEASE correct me if I'm wrong.
I have helped people through panic/anxiety attacks and experienced those myself. Especially when there's disassociation involved, it can look very similar to a flashback and the many of the skills transfer.
However, I have done a lot of research on the topic as I wrote a similar situation. From my understanding, your male protag needs to do the best he can to make her feel safe. I've read about people who use specific phrases to help ground them, which would only work if your characters have previously established the phrase. I've also read about using certain items, sounds, smells, etc. to ground the person. Something simple like peppermint gum, a balloon full of sand, something that wouldn't exist in their flashback and helps the person realize that it isn't actually happening, which draws them back to reality.
Moving can also help. Basically, trying to get the person to interact with their physical environment helps them get away from the mental environment.

Try and keep your male protag calm. Make him talk slow and gentle, and try not to touch her. Have him remind her who he is, as she probably doesn't know or may think he's someone that was present at the time of the trauma. If he is panicking (and I imagine he is) he can't show it. Emotions are contagious. He also needs to do what he can to convince her she's safe. He may need to meet her where she's at mentally so she can calm down enough to realize it's a flashback.

For example: my character was in a car accident in which his sister was badly hurt, and he fixates on her safety. He needs to be reassured by the other person there that his sister will be taken care of. In a sense, whoever is helping him needs to "play along" enough to calm him down so he can be grounded again.

Again, I have no personal experience, but I read a lot of others' stories and experiences. I'll try to find the links and attach them later. Hopefully this helped!

10-30-2018, 01:43 AM
I have PTSD and have experienced flashbacks. I don't know what's common for others, but for me, I don't move around, or claw at the walls, or scream, or anything like that. I freeze. My breathing and heart-rate skyrockets, but I go completely deer-in-the-headlights. I can't talk, I can't move. I just sit there, possibly whimpering, seeing the images play out in my head. Usually, I bring myself out of it, but it can take awhile. I'll have brief flashes of sanity, where I'll quickly chant something like, "It's not real. You're safe. It's 2018 and you're safe." If I can, I'll grab hold of something that might help ground me, like a familiar blanket on the bed, or maybe a pillow. Something with texture or a temperature difference can help. Given a few minutes, I'm usually able to anchor myself here-and-now without outside assistance.

I've experienced flashbacks in front of others, but because I freeze, they don't usually notice. My husband will notice, if he's in the room, but only because he's been married to me for 16 years and knows my triggers and my responses. Sometimes all it takes is my knowing that he's aware of my problem, and that's enough to break me out of it. A touch on the shoulder or upper back, maybe. Or a whispered, "You okay?" I might not be truly "okay" for awhile, but at least I'm not actively flashing-back.

Hope that helps!

10-30-2018, 05:29 PM
The only person I know who has PTSD has that same deer-in-the-headlights flashbacks. She does not move, speak, react to what's being said, or tolerate being touched. Hers last for a few hours, apparently, and those around her feel helpless.

10-30-2018, 05:42 PM
+1 for what Orianna said. I freeze, and the world shrinks down to a dark tunnel. Heart racing, breath shallow and rapid. Imagine it as a fight-or-flight response held in frozen limbo. There's nothing my husband can do but let me cling to him, and ease me away from the stimulus. There's no screaming, no crying, and it has to loosen its grip on its own.

L.C. Blackwell
11-01-2018, 06:42 AM
Tornadoboy, the behaviors that you're describing for your FMC are probably best associated with "night terrors" or "somnambulism" with accompanying night terrors. The links for the Wikipedia entries are here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleepwalking) and here (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Night_terror). They're not by any means extremely common, although there is some possible association with traumatic incidents. Generally, however, there appears to be a genetic predisposition at work.

11-09-2018, 09:40 AM
Orianna's experience has been really similar to my own.

Depending on the nature of the trauma, any interaction from him may worsen her flashback and push her deeper into it.

Generally though, if someone is dissociating physical tactile sensations can help bring them out of it. That might mean holding them, if that's not a trigger for that individual. It might also mean toasting a blanket in the dryer and then wrapping them in it.

Sometimes putting on music can help. Or if they can't tolerate being touched by a human, a dog or other animal soliciting attention from them can help ground them enough to pull them out of the episode. Smells are another thing. For me, if someone was to open a bottle of vanilla extract or something else fragrant and with comforting memories attached near me it would probably help.

If the person suffering from the flashback has been practicing coping skills like meditation, then putting on a familiar guided meditation app or actually facilitating one themselves can also help pull them out. My counselor is really really good at this with me. If anyone else tried it I doubt they'd have any success simply because they can't read me as well and I haven't really practiced it with anyone else.

L M Ashton
11-10-2018, 12:14 PM
Tornadoboy, I have sleep terrors/parasomnias, and what you described is more akin to that. My husband - in his sleep, for the most part - will gently put his arms around me, sometimes saying calming things, and generally just calm me down. I used to get these frequently, like several times a week.

For preventation, oddly enough, wearing eye shades decreases their incidence dramatically. I tend to weave what's around the room into my sleep terrors/waking nightmares, but if I can't see the room, it just doesn't happen as much. Now I'm down to a few times a year.

I also have PTSD, and the way Orianna described it is pretty much the same as how I react. My husband does the same thing then, too, as he does for my sleep terrors/parasomnias.

11-20-2018, 09:22 PM
I just want to say, hearing everyone say that their experiences with flashbacks is basically the same as mine, that's hugely reassuring. I tend to question my history of trauma, especially the childhood abuse, because my memories of it aren't always clear. Sometimes I feel like maybe I'm subconsciously faking it, or possibly delusional, even though I know denial is common among survivors of childhood trauma. (It's easier to believe you're faking it than to acknowledge the depths of cruelty some human beings are willing to inflict on innocent children.)

Every once in awhile, though, something will pop up and smack me in the face, saying, "See? You aren't faking." Hearing that others experience flashbacks in the same way is one of those moments.

11-25-2018, 03:58 AM
The term "PTSD" should be changed from "Disorder" to "Response". 'Disorder' sounds like a judgment. A new theory about trauma called the Vagal Nerve Theory (Google if you are interested) now shows that the responses of "deer in the headlights", people avoidance, etc. are evolutionary derived responses to not feeling safe. It's when people get stuck in one of these responses that it becomes disabling. Trauma does several things: it can switch nerves from 'off' to 'on' and vice versa; it can build new neuron connections in the brain that create what is known as 'chronic pain' and IBS, and it can remake the Vagal Nerve so it gets stuck in one of the aforenamed responses. All of these can be unlearned and re-taught. Given this, dealing with someone having a flashback you should know they first have to become aware they are safe right now. To do that you need to get their attention, and doing that is the key.



01-27-2019, 06:07 AM
I'm a little late in responding to it but thanks for all the feedback everyone!

It all derives from her having been trapped in a dark place for several days which almost took her life, and now about 10 years later when she wakes up in the dark (something she never allows to happen when it's up to her) she sometimes thinks she's still tapped in that place and reacts as one would expect given that.

Sound plausible?

Al X.
01-27-2019, 10:04 AM
It used to bother me. I haven't had the nightmares in years. I remember the most notable time. I went back to college after I got out, and I was living in a dorm and had this dream that people were going in through the window to get me. I totally freaked out.

I freaked out to the point where I was screaming then I woke up, realized what happened, then there were a bunch of people in the hallway wondering what the hell happened. I felt kind of embarrassed, told everyone things were fine and went back to sleep.

Just let it go.

02-17-2019, 12:37 AM
@Tornadoboy, It might help to look up the DSM V description of PTSD. You'll find a list of symptoms there that most of us with it (me included) experience. A couple of caveats: someone so diagnosed doesn't necessarily have all the symptoms. Secondly, every individual w/ PTSD or any other disorder is far more complex than the list of symptoms. A good therapist will treat the person, not the diagnosis.

Others have mentioned grounding and that I think, for a friend, is probably the right way to go about dealing with a flashback. @Orianna2000 is absolutely right, there's no clawing at walls, it's mostly freeze, although some may dive for cover or leave the party to go somewhere where they feel safer. There is no single method of flashback. Some people may experience one where they show nothing at all; the terror is all inside.

One more suggestion: I hate the term PTSD precisely because everyone's heard of it yet few truly understand it. Type the acronym or speak it out loud and people respond with, "oh crap, are they going to be violent." My suggestion is to talk about your character's symptoms, their experiences that brought them there. That might build a better connection for readers than telling your reader they have PTSD or any other disorder. The acronym won't build your character much and might evoke a response in your reader that you don't intend. PTSD like all diagnoses are mainly useful when filling out insurance forms. Outside of the forms, it becomes a lot like any other meaningless label.

Just thought of something else. Your character that helps sounds like an angel. It's a tough role to play. You might check out MyPTSD.com and browse around. There's probably a lot of rich detail there for both sufferers and, for your purposes, their supporters.

Best of luck w/ your story.

02-18-2019, 07:01 AM
Hi, Hopefully I can add a little more.

I have PTSD, primarily from a bad childhood. My flashbacks can be scary. I don't just remember something, I'm literally there. I can see everything, feel everything, taste everything. I feel as though I am literally there.

I had a friend who suffered from PTSD from a few tours in Vietnam. We would talk about our reactions. His were about the same as mine. We worked the overnight at a Wal-Mart and about midnight one night, there is the sound of a car backfire. It triggers him and he holes himself up in the Garden Center thinking that he's back in the jungle.

My PTSD has always felt like a fraud. PTSD is something heros get from seeing things that no man, or woman, should have experienced. Here I am, PTSD from neglect and molestation.

The best you can do for a person under this type of reaction is to help ground them. Don't tell them that "there's nothing there" because, to them, there is most assuredly something hinding out there. Help them ride through the reaction and guide them to safety. Don't hit it head on or you tend to reinforce the reaction from sheer human stubborness.

For my beautiful wife, when I have a particularly bad one, she holds my hand and just strokes it. She reminds me of the date and calls to me to come back to her. She doesn't understand, but she knows that, for me it's real.

I think that's the best advice I can give you on this. Depending on the depth of the reaction, have the MC remind the person what day it is, or something else to ground them back to the present.

02-19-2019, 12:53 AM
I think that's the best advice I can give you on this. Depending on the depth of the reaction, have the MC remind the person what day it is, or something else to ground them back to the present.

Agree with that. Remind them where they are and when they are. Have them look around and name some things they see or point them out. Look, you're in a restaurant, not [flashback scene]. Tell them they're safe.

I'd suggest you give the PTSD and your MC some unique or personal method, something like Lochnivar suggested, like holding a hand. That's beautiful and shows a really deep bond between them. Or you can show that method in the process of creation.

02-20-2019, 06:22 PM
My PTSD has always felt like a fraud. PTSD is something heros get from seeing things that no man, or woman, should have experienced. Here I am, PTSD from neglect and molestation.

I just want to point out, molestation is something that no man or woman should have experienced.

02-20-2019, 07:26 PM
I just want to point out, molestation is something that no man or woman should have experienced.

Absolutely. Hell, I believe, is a large place. Just because you've seen a region of it that looks different from the regions others see, doesn't mean you've not seen hell.