Help for flashbacks

Into the Light – help for flashbacks

Facing flashbacks: print out ‘n’ keep ideas for taking back control

flashbacks-print out and keep
(Adobe Acrobat pdf version)

If you experience flashbacks this information may be able to help you…

It’s been a very romantic evening. Ice cream eaten, coffee drunk, you’re holding hands in the moonlight and your partner leans towards you. As you move in for the kiss you feel … you feel … a strong sudden urge to throw up. Where did that feeling come from? What is happening to you?

Your flatmate and you are in a discussion about the ever rising pile of washing up in the kitchen. Your flatmate’s voice starts to rise and the “discussion” becomes more heated. As you are about to make your point suddenly your flatmate’s face is gone and for a split second is replaced by someone else’s – the person who abused you over twenty years ago. Then just as abruptly the picture is gone. What is going on? Where did that image come from? Did you make it up or are you loosing it?

If you have watched the cult TV series “Life On Mars” or “Ashes to Ashes” you will have seen Flashbacks used very effectively. Sudden unexpected images or pictures would come into the main character’s minds triggered by something in their present life and they were immediately transported back in time to their past life. Although different in some respects this is quite a good analogy of what happens when we have experienced trauma as children and the memories of that trauma come intruding into our lives today as adults. These sudden unexpected memories are known as “Flashbacks”.

Flashbacks occur to people when they have experienced a traumatic incident and are the memories of that trauma that have not been processed. The World Health Organization (1992) describes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as a “Delayed or protracted response to a stressful event (of either brief or long duration) of an exceptionally threatening or catastrophic nature… Typical features include episodes of repeated reliving of the trauma in intrusive memories (‘flashbacks’)”.

If you have experienced trauma when you were growing up you may experience flashbacks. This is because often during abuse in order to protect from the horror of what is going on, memories of the abuse are kept inside. These feelings and thoughts remain locked inside until a ‘trigger’ from the present releases the past memory. As result a flashback memory can feel like you are experiencing the traumatic event from your past now – there is a blurring between past and present – and this can feel extremely frightening.

Flashbacks also come in different forms. They can be images, strong feelings, smells, numbness, pictures, nightmares and thoughts that come suddenly into our minds:


Pictures or Images Flashback

These are snapshots memories that came up very suddenly and then are gone again. These can be triggered by something in your environment e.g. a perfume, or a sound that your subconscious recognises and emerges into your conscience in a picture form. This can also happen with sounds and even smells.


Feeling Flashback

A “Feeling” flashback is often registered as an extreme response to a situation or person. This can brings on a very strong feeling for example extreme rage or pain or fear seemingly out of nowhere.


Body Flashback

This is a physical feeling and response to what has happened after the event that is triggered by something in your present life e.g. touch or sexual contact. This could be a feeling of nausea or repulsion or tightness in the body.


Acting Out Memory

This may not be like an actual “Flashback” but it is important because it is often a repetition of a pattern of behaviour or situation -when you don’t have any insight or knowledge as to the root event. An example of this is washing excessively but not knowing why you are led to do this.

Flashbacks are particularly distressing if you feel as if you are experiencing the abuse again in the present day, and you can lose touch with your current reality. One way you can help yourself if you are experiencing a Flashback is to practise “Grounding”. This means you actively bring yourself from your past memory into the current day. This can help you through your flashback and also it means that it is more unlikely for your flashback to continue.

Here are some tips for “Grounding” you may like to print out and keep in your bag or pocket ready for when you need them.


————————– PRINT OUT AND KEEP ——————————

Getting Grounded :

If you are experiencing a flashback these grounding ideas may help you to return from the flashback to the present.

Feet First: Put your feet on the floor firmly – stamp if you like – reminding yourself of the here and now.

Breath Deep: Be aware of your breathing. When we are fearful we can start to breath very quickly. Take a few minutes to just breath in and out slowly – count if that helps e.g. four counts in and six counts out.

Into Today: Use your senses to bring you into the present.
Look: Take in the shapes, colours, people that are around you.
Listen: To noises e.g. music, birds, television, talking going on.
Feel: Touch and feel your hands, arms, legs – furniture – all reminding you of where you are now.

Remind Yourself: This is just a memory – this is not actually happening. The worst is over and focus on who you are now. If it helps talk to the frightened “child” part of you and assure him or her that you (your healthy adult self) can take care of him/her now.

Hold Tight: In a strong flashback it is easy to loose perspective and even not know where you end and the rest of the world begins. Holding a blanket round yourself or hugging a pillow can help.

Take Time: Don’t push yourself to do things after a flashback – be kind to yourself and look after yourself. If you can, do something you find comforting e.g. having a hot drink.

Get Support: If you feel you would like to. Let your friends know what you are going through and let them help you by talking to you, touching you – whatever helps to remind you of who you are now.

Write It: Flashbacks feel frightening because they can seem to come out of nowhere. Write down the flashback when you feel ready and what happened directly beforehand. This will help you identify the “trigger” and will help you gain understanding of where the memory came from.

Share it: Consider joining a self help group or finding a good therapist to help you through this time.

Although flashbacks are frightening they mean that the memories are coming up for a reason. Often this is that you are ready to talk through the memory and it is another step towards growth and healing. As we continue to progress and talk about our memories, suffering and trauma – the flashbacks get less and less – and the painful memories no longer dominate us but rather we call the shots and control them.



“Helping people with PTSD deal with flashbacks” – The Nursing Times Vol 98 5 Page 40 January 2002
“Garlands For Ashes” – Programme Course notes written by Karen Pitt: 1994
Worcester Rape and Sexual Abuse Centre website
The ICD-10 Classification of Mental and Behavioural Disorders, World Health Organization, Geneva, 1992

This article was originally printed in the Trauma And Abuse Group September 2010 Newsletter