PTSD is a mental health challenge that plagues many 1st responders and I was no different. 27 years of firefighting had left me battling it and depression burdening me with many of the common problematic symptoms that tend to come along with PTSD. There were intrusive symptoms, avoidance symptoms, alterations in cognition and mood and arousal and reactivity type symptoms.
During my battles with mental health, like so many others, I was burdened with troublesome flashbacks. Flashbacks fall into the intrusive category of symptoms which is appropriately named because they are incredibly intrusive. Initially these flashbacks had great power over me. Seemingly coming out of nowhere they would totally overwhelm my ability to cope, threw my emotions and thoughts into a proverbial blender, transported me away from the present time and rendered me cognitively useless for the duration of the flashback. I knew I had to do something because for so many, flashbacks are a constant problematic symptom that makes every day living challengingly complex.
Early on in my journey I made the conscious choice to learn everything I could about everything that is PTSD. It’s been said that knowledge is power and this simple idea is so true when it comes to all things PTSD. I read alot but not being a psychologist, psychiatrist or a psychotherapist my understanding of what “it” was, was on the light side. I likened my understanding to that of an out of focus jigsaw puzzle with tons of missing pieces and the puzzle image barely distinguishable from that of a hazy blurry blob. There was initially no in focus complete puzzle image. Sure I had my initial idea of what that puzzle image might have looked like but my understanding of what was going on in my head was definitely lacking substance just like that hazy blurry blob of a the puzzle image.
Now to tackle my flashbacks I took a definitive structured approach. Instead of being the servant of my flashbacks I chose to make them work for me to advance my understanding and fine tune what I knew and understood about my PTSD to help me build that complete puzzle picture.
The first thing I did regarding my flashbacks was to assume they were going to happen that way when they did I was not overwhelmingly surprised. The next thing I did was take a very cerebral approach and every time I had a flashback I analyzed and evaluated the way it played out and the way I experienced it and compared that with what my understanding of flashbacks was at that time. Needless to say because of the complexities of the human brain and PTSD my analysis and evaluation of the just experienced flashback never exactly matched what my understanding was. Having said that, it allowed me to slightly tweak and fine tune that understanding of flashbacks based on what I had just experienced. It allowed me to either add another missing piece to the puzzle or brought the puzzle image a little bit more in focus for me. Sometimes I was even able to not only add another puzzle piece moving me closer to a complete puzzle image but also bring that puzzle image a little more out of the blur and a little more in focus. Over time this, expect, experience, analyze and fine tune/tweak process allowed that puzzle picture understanding of flashbacks to become much more complete and much more in focus. After I was able to master this process my flashbacks no longer had the power over me that they once did.
I went on to use this very same approach to many of my other common symptoms like nightmares, intrusive thoughts, hypervigilence and avoidance with varying degrees of success but for the most overwhelming and debilitating flashbacks the out of focus puzzle approach helped me gain mastery over them.