How to Help a Person in a Trauma Flashback

Nov 30, 2020 at 07:00 am by aGentleDrLaura

Helping with Traumatized Person
Helping Hand

Thanksgiving is over. We've eaten our fill of turkey, pumpkin, and other favorites. Now we're onward toward the next holiday experience. Many people feel a lot of joy. Holidays are life-affirming.

Life-Affirming Events

One of the problems with life-affirming events is that they can trigger a PTSD flashback in anyone who has experienced a trauma. Life-affirming events are things like love, holidays, exercise, meditation, and intimacy. Such events have deep connections and feelings attached to them. Life can be moving along quite well in your or your significant other's life. Then, suddenly everything is off the rails. Incidents like this can happen at home, at other people's homes, in a store, at work, or anywhere. Anywhere at all.

The purpose of writing this is to give you a few ideas to help someone in your life if or when they go seriously off-balance into their traumatic history.

Most writings on the subject of triggers and flashbacks put the responsibility on the person who has them. As a survivor of abuse, I experience life with my triggers. If I learn to identify most of them, I can develop strategies to take care of me. When I know how to identify the inner clues that I am being triggered, I can have effective plans in place to get myself safe. And, most of the time, I'm going to be better at it than anyone else because I live with this 24/7. And it's all internal. Inside me.

Then something happens, and I'm no longer in control of myself. I'm living in my past. Or my Vietnam Veteran husband has been triggered, and he's no longer the loving man I married.

Under these conditions, people are rarely able to catch it themselves. They fragment into old memories and need someone else to help them. Friends, partners, bosses, co-workers, if you accept it, you are elected for this job. Simply because you are there.

Clues Someone Is Re-living Old Trauma

So much of what people write about trauma, flashbacks, and triggering is about an inner experience. Therefore, I spent some time researching what people say when you ask them what their flashback experience looks like to other people. I came up with sounds, their body/actions, and their observable emotional condition.

    •    Sounds

Some people shout. In other people, their breathing changes from excited to hyperventilating or shallow breathing. Some scream, moan, cry, stutter, or mutter. The sounds are out of context with present time and activity. The biggest clue is in the rhythm of what's happening. There is an abrupt change in sound from what was happening into a different sound.

    •    Body/Actions

People go on alert, tense up, and watch for danger. They get jumpy and may try to hide. People can hide in plain sight by withdrawing into themselves. Some people rock and shake. Some freeze and go still. People can get hot and sweaty, while others shiver. Occasionally people throw up. Some people are unable to see in present time while still others cannot hear you. They only hear their past speaking to them. Just like the sounds people make, their physicality changes from one state to another. It's the change that can be your biggest clue.

    •    Observable Emotional Condition

People appear distracted and spaced out or like they are daydreaming. They are no longer present with you in today. They might not know who you are or where they are. Some people get a flat blank expression on their face. And again, their reaction is out of sync or context with whatever is happening right now. You can tell if you look closely at their face and eyes that they are no longer here with you. The look on their face doesn't correspond to whatever is happening.

What to Do during a Trauma Flashback

    •    Remember personal boundaries

First and foremost is that we need to remember personal boundaries. The boundaries of a person who has been triggered are ragged and broken. They are more aware of their hurt past than the safer present. An analogy for this could be of help during an auto accident. Most people remember that moving people is dangerous and could permanently injure their spine. The same is true for people suddenly thrust into past trauma. Go slow, tentative and careful unless they are in danger of harming themselves.

    •    Different awareness

Solutions come from the reality that there are different kinds of awareness for all of us. We can be fully aware of what is inside of us. That's what I worked on so diligently as I learned my feelings and reactions to outside events. I developed an understanding of my triggers by paying close attention to what was happening inside me.

Or we can become aware of what is outside of us.

In a re-living experience, people get stuck inside themselves in their memory of a past event. They live with their past superimposed on today. And what they need from us is to help them back to present time and place.

    •    Grounding techniques

When I worked as a consultant to attorneys getting their clients ready for cross-examination in court cases, we talked about grounding techniques. A few examples are as follows. People could touch their chair, look at the color on the wall, and in extreme cases, bite the inside of their cheek. All that, to take their attention from the emotions the opposing attorney was attempting to trigger.

Grounding questions are questions around the physical environment. Like the recommendations I gave attorneys, you ask questions about sounds, smells, sights. Colors. The feel of the furniture. The idea is to bring the person back to present time by focusing on the things that are present in the now.

Ask them questions. Again, in an ideal world, the two of you have discussed this in advance. Maybe you've even pre-planned code questions that signal, “come back here now.”

Some people have their own aides to bring themselves back from a triggered place. In an ongoing relationship, you can ask them what they might need from you.

Gently talk to the person in such a way as to help them answer you. Your entire purpose would be to bring them back to you, the room you are in, and whatever was going on before they were triggered.

People are different and what works for one person is not necessarily what will work for another. Each person's history is uniquely their own. So, if a soft and gentle approach doesn't help, try a more authoritative one. And vice versa.

This has been a brief summary of what you can do when you observe someone in a trauma triggered state. If you'd like more help, feel free to email me at


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