With May being Mental Health Month, it is imperative that we share awareness on what mental health is, and how healthy mental health looks.
I would LOVE to tell you how healthy mental health feels, but I honestly have no idea.
At least, not yet.
If you follow my stories, you will know that I am no stranger to mental health challenges. I have been diagnosed with extremely high anxiety, as well as late-onset PTSD.
Both Anxiety and PTSD come with an assortment of daily struggles social awkwardness, exhaustion, loss of focus, fear of many things that may or not be legitimate worries, and a plethora of inner demons.
I am currently recovering from some mental trauma that was part of a long-term (9 year) relationship. I have decided to stop taking my Anxiety meds while I am off work and making attempts to live “normal” before I take on my career responsibilities next week. I have been off work for over 7 weeks.
One of the most prevalent issues I have had lately is FLASHBACKS.
If you suffer from any mental health struggles, you are most likely a sufferer of flashbacks in one capacity or another. These annoying, powerful events can take over your mind if you aren’t aware of how to diffuse them.
Flashbacks can occur at any time throughout the day, while you are sleeping, watching TV, working out, or any other time. They often catch me off guard, and if I am not careful, they can throw me into a downward spiral that ends in a dark rabbit hole.
So, I have learned to view them as a challenge that I can win.
The Power of Flashbacks
Anyone who suffers from PTSD, whether they are military, abuse victims, or anyone who has witnessed a traumatic event, can tell you that flashbacks are terrifying. They are also traumatizing in their own realm.
They are often triggered by an environment or a situation that you are in, and they can be subtle, or they can be all-encompassing, and downright horrifying.
I have been blessed/cursed with a photographic memory, so when I have flashbacks, they are very vivid, to the point where I have to remove myself from a situation in order to shake them off.
A photographic memory,( not to be confused with an eidetic memory), can be amazing in the right situations. In triggered situations, however, my memory is truly graphic and paralyzing. There have been multiple occasions where I wish I could turn it off. I have undergone hypnosis in the past, to attempt to ease the vividness of my memories, to no avail. The hypnosis actually drew out more, deeper memories that I had buried in my subconscious as a child.
With a photographic memory, I recall every single detail of an event. I can tell you what day of the week it was, time of day, what everyone involved is wearing, the smell of the environment and why I was in that situation. It is as though I am watching a movie from my past, and recall every line that the “actors” say. Like I said, it is a blessing and a curse.
What Flashbacks are Like for Someone with PTSD
These “brain movies” can come out of nowhere, when someone with mental health issues is not guarded.
They can strike when you least expect it, or you can expect them to affect you if you put yourself into a triggered situation. They can be brought out by your senses- a vision, an aroma or odor, a sound, or by a familiar touch or taste of something.
One example I currently had of a flashback, that was not one of my most traumatic ones, was while I was shopping for housewares for my new place. I left a long term relationship and spent a day looking for “new” things to make my own, new space my own.
As I was standing in a housewares store, staring at a wall of silverware, I was taken over by a strong flashback of my ex being verbally abusive to me. It shook me enough that I had to leave the store, and change my focus.
“It was a Sunday in January of 2018. We were in the kitchen having another argument about his ex wife. He was wearing his hockey sweat pants and a black T-shirt with an image of a scantily dressed woman on it. the woman on his shirt was standing on top of a bar, with male customers looking up her dress. The bottom of his t-shirt had the words, “Last Dance” written across his belly. While we spoke of his ex wife, I asked why we couldn’t finally get new dishes. I was tired of using “her” dishes that she left behind her when she bailed out of the relationship. He sneered at me and said, “There is NOTHING wrong with these dishes! Why would you want to waste money on new ones, when there is nothing wrong with these?” He then threw his arms in the air, turned and stomped out of the kitchen muttering something under his breath about how ridiculous I am and how his Ex needs to stay in the past.”
Like I said, it was a minor flashback, but I feel if I write about more terrifying ones I will breathe life into them, causing them to come back. Even writing this one, the threat of it coming into my mind, in all of its clarity is too much.
It was enough to stop me in my tracks, and walk away from the wall of silverware, as I felt the sting of my self-esteem lowering.
How to Move Forward?
There are a few strategies I have used to move forward from flashbacks. I have been plagued with them for as long as I can remember, and although they can be graphic and often crippling, they teach me lessons.
- Talk through them with a professional, or with a trusting friend, or partner. Often talking about them takes them from your brain and out of your body, through verbalization. Talking with someone who you can trust can help to put them into perspective, and even learning and hearing someone else’s thoughts can help.
- Step out of the triggering situation- Often all you can do is remove yourself from the situation that may have provoked the flashback. There is no need to explain why you step out. Most times a breath of air outside or a change of scenery can help bring you back to the present.
- Meditation or Yoga- I know, I know. EVERYONE says that meditation or yoga are the answers to everything. In this case, however, it does help to train your brain and body to overcome darkness and trauma. Learning to breathe and focus is key to help you move past any trauma.
- Carry around an arsenal of GOOD memories- This one takes practice but is an invaluable skill. Have you ever been a situation where you wish time would stand still because you are so happy and content in that moment? Imagine your brain as an old rolodex and stash those moments in the file. When trauma comes flooding back through your memories, take a deep, cleansing breath, and find the wonderful thoughts and moments you have stored. Try and focus on them and force a new flashback to replace the painful one. Whether it is your child’s smile, a day of celebration, or just a peaceful moment you have had near a lake, work on your mind to delete the flashback and bring that moment back into focus. Like I said, it takes work and practice, but this skill is a valuable tool for your arsenal.
- Medicate- To me, this is last resort. However, I have had success with being on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications in the past. Your physician can work with you to find a good fit, if this is the road you choose. Medications don’t need to be a permanent solution, however, they are needed for some sufferers in order to stop the PTSD recurrences.
Last, but not least, stay aware of potential triggers and either avoid them altogether or learn to cope with them. That sounds easier than it is, yet, there are ways to get through them without losing yourself and your mental health in the process.
Learning to expect them also can help some people. Sometimes the element of surprise can be harder to handle than the actual memory or flashback. You may be in a comfort zone, without a care in the world, when out of nowhere a recollection sneaks in and rattles your focus and your mind. When we expect them or allow ourselves to comprehend that they are a part of our mental world, they seem easier to handle.
For more information on PTSD and Anxiety, this is a fantastic resource: Be There – Created by Jack.org
Just talking about mental health isn’t enough. We need the knowledge, skills and confidence to step up and be there for…bethere.org