Jumpin' Jack Flashback: let's talk about somatic flashbacks
Updated: Aug 19, 2021
This wasn’t a post I was planning on writing. But I recently came across someone who was suffering from a few symptoms that are similar to mine, and I wanted to do what I could to let them know that they are far from alone.
Here’s something that’s a bane of my existence: somatic flashbacks. For those lucky folks who don’t know what those are, let me explain. Somatic flashbacks are when your body reacts to your mind and behaves accordingly. Phantom pains are a good example of this. I cannot speak for other people’s experiences, but I can describe mine. For a while I called them “glitches,” before I found out they were actually a thing. I was sure it was something unique to me, and I was just super weird. And they are glitches; my body and mouth take control without my permission, and it’s humiliating and unpleasant.
Let’s start with my mouth, and my exhausted vocal cords. When I’m stressed, I scream. Not in an intentional way, but more of a primal banshee, “Holy fuck I’m gonna diiiiiiiiie” kind of way. Sometimes, I can feel it coming; I start turning into a volcano. My body tenses as I feel the screams rise out of me, rapidly pushing me towards an impending eruption. Once it starts, I’m screwed. I do whatever I can to mitigate it, but that just leaves me grunting and gasping. It’s the worst when I’m in public or holding a baby. Another symptom is that I curse all the fucking time. It’s like a tic, and I’m sure people think I have tourettes. Also not great when with children. It’s not only cursing, though. I say all sorts of things that I’ve said in the past. My visual flashbacks can work their way into being verbal and force me to say unfortunate things that I said during my time in the army, often earning me disturbed and confused looks from those around me. And finally, I choke, struggling for air as if being strangled by a bloodthirsty gorilla. It’s like drowning on dry land, doubling over and suffocating for no discernable reason—and the lifeguard’s asleep. This one has the added features of physically hurting, which is far from fun, and being a possible lead-in to vomiting.
Speaking of vomiting, let’s talk about the rest of me, shall we? As I’ve just addressed, I vomit. Not usually like the Exorcist Girl, but enough that I can lose a light meal and a beverage. Thankfully, this symptom’s died down a great deal, but I still find myself retching with regularity. It’s very theatrical. When I’m stressed, sad, or angry, that’s it—I’m on all fours with body wracking. Much to my annoyance, that’s not the only physical symptom I have. I also twitch, jump, crouch, and am overcome with feelings of horrendous agony. Yeah, that last part is really vexatious. I get psychosomatic pain from the army, and my back, hips, and legs revolt against me like a bunch of cakeless Frenchmen. This particular symptom lasts quite a while, and keeps me up at night whenever it rears its ugly, unwanted head. Instead of peacefully drifting off to Nightmare Land, I’m in near tears from the pain.
Despite all this, I’ve found that working on mindfulness and presence has helped tremendously. If you’re experiencing somatic flashbacks, my advice is a breathing exercise. My go-to is the good ol’ 4-7-8. First, breathe in through your nose for four seconds, paying attention to the way your body feels as it expands to accommodate the air. Next, hold it for seven seconds, and just pay mind to how your chest feels as if you’re a human balloon. Lastly, breathe out through your mouth for eight seconds, noticing how your muscles relax and your shoulders fall as the air leaves you. I know it’s hard when you can barely breathe, so you need to repeat over and over until you get it right—but it’ll pay off.
Another thing that helps is self-acceptance. If you suffer from somatic flashbacks, you’re not a freak, you’re not an outlier, and you’re not impolite. This type of flashback is probably my least favorite type, as somatic flashbacks lack the privacy that visual and emotional flashbacks have. Still, I’ve been working hard on accepting that it’s just a really annoying battle wound. I know it can be super embarrassing experiencing these things in front of other people, but it doesn’t define you. You’re not broken because of it. Injured, in a sense, but that’s understandable considering your history. Please don’t be hard on yourself because of it. Just take a few breaths and do your best to practice mindfulness and some self-acceptance. It may not change your situation overnight, but something is always better than nothing.
Remember, my friends: twitch, breathe, love.