A flashback is when memories of past traumas feel as if they are taking place in the current moment. Many survivors of sexual violence experience these emotional returns to the trauma, believing themselves to be back at the scene of the attack or abuse. Flashbacks are also a symptom of PTSD.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, “Flashbacks may consist of images, sounds, smells, or feelings, and are often triggered by ordinary occurrences, such as a door slamming or a car backfiring on the street. A person having a flashback may lose touch with reality and believe that the traumatic incident is happening all over again.”i
Flashbacks can be triggered by many stimuli, such as sensory or emotional feelings. It can sometimes feel as though flashbacks come from nowhere, making it difficult to distinguish between past and present. They can often leave the survivor feeling anxious, scared, powerless, or any other emotions they felt at the time of their assault.ii
Some flashbacks are mild and brief, a passing moment, while others may be powerful and last a long time. Many times the individual does not even realize that s/he is having a flashback and may feel faint or dissociate.
What Helps During a Flashback?
Here are some tips on what to do if you realize that you are in the middle of a flashback:
- Tell yourself that you are having a flashback and remind yourself that the actual event is over and you survived.
- Take slow, deep breaths by putting your hand on your stomach and taking deep enough breaths that your hand moves out with the inhalations and in with the exhalations. This is important because when we panic our body begins to take short, shallow breaths and the decrease in oxygen that accompanies this change increases our panicked state. So increasing the oxygen in our system can help us to get out of the anxious state we are in.
- Return to the present.
- Use your five senses to ground you to the present:
- See: What’s around you? Make a list of the items in the room; count the colors or pieces of furniture around you.
- Smell: Breathe in the smell of lavender, or focus on the smells around you.
- Hear: Listen to the noises around you, or turn on music.
- Taste: Bite into an apple. Focus on the flavor and juicy sensation in your mouth.
- Touch: A piece of ice, or hold a stone. What does it feel like?
- Recognize what would make you feel safer.
- Wrap yourself in a blanket; go into a room by yourself and close the door, whatever it takes to feel as if you are secure.
Individuals suffering from flashbacks should take steps to prevent future flashbacks by identifying triggers and early warning signs:iii
→ Identify what experiences trigger your flashbacks.
Flashbacks are often triggered by some kind of reminder of the attack or abuse, sensory or emotional feelings, or another stressful experience. Identify the experiences that trigger your flashbacks and make a plan on how to avoid these triggers, or how to cope if you encounter the trigger.
→ Be aware of what you experience before a flashback.
Flashbacks may sometimes feel as though they come out of nowhere. However, there are often some early warning signs indicating that a flashback is imminent. Try to become aware of the early symptoms of your flashbacks — what were you thinking or feeling just before the flashback occurred?
Flashbacks can worsen over time if left untreated; some flashbacks can cause extreme confusion, making it difficult to distinguish between what is happening in the flashback and what is happening in the real world.
Through counseling, many survivors learn how to understand the experience of having a flashback and receive tools to manage the memory of the trauma in other ways. Whether or not you choose to get professional counseling, you should consider speaking with someone from the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1.800.656.HOPE or visit the Online Hotline.
i.“Anxiety Issues,” National Institute of Mental Health, November 2 2010
ii.What is a “Flashback?” Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, 2006.
iii.“Coping with Flashbacks,” Dr. Matthew Tull, October 29 2008
This product was supported by grant number 2009-D1-BX-K023 awarded by the Office for Victims of Crime, Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. The opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this product are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice
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