Intrusive and painful memories of past traumatic events can leave you terrified. But learning coping skills could make these incidents easier to navigate.
Flashbacks happen when vivid memories of a traumatic experience intrude into the present.
They can create a sense of disconnection from your current surroundings. You may feel as if you’re right back in the traumatic moment, living through it all over again, even if it happened a while ago.
Flashbacks of sexual assault, abuse, and other types of trauma can begin some time after the event took place. This could happen months or years later, even if you think you’ve successfully dealt with the hurt it caused you.
After experiencing your first flashback, the ever-present worry about reexperiencing the trauma yet again might slowly weave its way into your daily life.
Feeling this dread is natural and valid. But, you don’t have to live in fear. There are some effective coping skills that can help you manage flashbacks, both in the moment and beyond.
Most flashbacks come in the form of images from the traumatic event. These images can lead you to experience intense emotions as well as physical symptoms like dizziness, shakiness, and a rapid heartbeat.
Other flashbacks, though, may come without the vivid imagery but with some of the emotions you experienced during the event.
Leading trauma therapist Pete Walker introduced the idea of emotional flashbacks to describe these episodes of overwhelming emotions.
Some of the intense emotions you could experience during these types of flashbacks include:
When you have these types of flashbacks, you might feel deeply distressed and also confused over the source of the emotions. This can add to an overall sense of isolation and helplessness.
Unlike nightmares, most flashbacks happen while you’re awake.
Flashbacks and nightmares aren’t the same thing, but both commonly show up as symptoms of PTSD.
That said, you don’t have to have a PTSD diagnosis to have flashbacks (or vivid nightmares) after experiencing a traumatic incident.
A flashback is when you experience memories and emotions that return you to a traumatic event.
They can last for seconds or minutes, and involve some level of dissociation or mental disconnection from the present.
During a flashback, grounding techniques and other coping strategies can help you soothe distress and make it easier to hold on to the present moment.
Practicing these exercises regularly may also help you manage flashbacks when they occur.
Breathe slow and deep
The feelings of stress and fear triggered by a flashback can tense up your muscles and speed up your heartbeat and breathing. That’s your fight-or-flight response at work.
But hyperventilation, the too-rapid breathing that commonly happens when you feel afraid or panicked, can leave you trying to catch your breath or even feeling as if you can’t breathe.
In short, breathing too quickly often only adds to your distress.
Working to control your breathing doesn’t just give you something to focus on. Maintaining a steady rhythm of breath can also help you feel calmer and more relaxed.
Give it a try
- Inhale deeply for a count of four.
- After inhaling, exhale slowly for the same count of four.
- Avoid holding your breath between inhales and exhales. Steady, regular breathing is key when trying to ground yourself.
- Since you want to belly breathe, it could help to measure your breathing with a hand on your belly. You’ll notice your hand moving slightly as your stomach expands and deflates with each inhale and exhale.
Grab an anchor object
If you experience regular flashbacks, you might find it helps to keep a small but meaningful possession with you at all times.
This anchor object, often called a grounding object, can be anything small and pocketable:
- a memento of a loved one
- a smooth or pleasingly textured pebble, rock, or shell
- a keychain-sized toy or stuffed animal
- an important piece of paper
- a ring or necklace
Touching or holding this item can help you remember you’re experiencing a flashback.
You might even think of this item as something that helps you firmly anchor yourself, so you aren’t swept away in the overwhelming tide of memory.
Walk, move, or stretch
Mindfully moving your body can often help you move through a flashback, since it helps you refocus your consciousness on actions taking place in the present. Plus, since flashbacks often involve dissociation, movement can help you reconnect with your physical self.
A few simple movements to try:
- Stand up and raise your arms, then reach down to your toes.
- Walk around the room.
- Stretch your limbs from a seated position or your favorite yoga pose.
- Wiggle your toes. Challenge yourself to wiggle just one toe at a time. It’s OK if you can’t do it! Just making the effort can help.
- Try progressive muscle relaxation to tense and relax your muscle groups, one after the other.
Use the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise
Your five senses can go a long way toward helping you return to the present moment during a flashback.
Try activating your senses by:
- smelling something pleasant, like spices or a candle
- splashing cool water on your face or running cold water through your hands
- stroking a soft piece of fabric
- standing barefoot in grass
- eating something with a strong taste, like a pickle or lemon
You can also try the 5-4-3-2-1 mindfulness technique, which takes you through each of your senses, step by step.
Give it a try
- 5: Name five things you see around you, like sofa, window, book, dog, door.
- 4: Name four things you hear, like birds, water running, people talking, traffic.
- 3: Name three things you feel on your skin or body, like the sun’s warmth, the cuffs of your socks, the softness of your shirt.
- 2: Name two things you smell, like a neighbor’s barbecue, the incense in your bedroom, or your basil plant.
- 1: Name something you can taste, like the coffee you just drank or the gum in your mouth.
Remind yourself that you’re having a flashback
Flashbacks can feel overwhelming because they seem so real.
Remembering that the experience does not, in fact, reflect your current reality can make that distress more bearable.
If you get nightmares from time to time, maybe you’ve learned to wake yourself by repeating, “It’s just a dream.” This exercise involves a similar approach.
Try telling yourself, as many times as it takes, “This is a flashback. I’m remembering what happened before. It’s not happening now.”
Remember you’re safe now
Simply knowing you’re having a flashback can help you feel a little safer, but a reminder never hurts.
You can remind yourself that you’re safe and secure by repeating things like:
- “I’m afraid, but I’m safe.”
- “It’s over. I made it through.”
- “I’m safe at home. I’m not in danger.”
- “These memories are painful, but they can’t hurt me.”
If you have a difficult time remembering these calming phrases while in the grip of a flashback, consider jotting down a few reminder statements after the flashback passes.
Practicing them ahead of time can help you learn to reach for them automatically during a flashback.
If safety mantras don’t help you feel more secure, try boosting your sense of security by:
- holding or stroking your pet
- grabbing your favorite blanket and curling up under it
- locking your bedroom door
While you can’t always prevent flashbacks, learning to recognize some of the situations that trigger them can make a big difference.
Flashback prompts can include any specific words, sounds, smells, or visual imagery you associate with the trauma you experienced. This will be very unique to you and your experience.
Some examples may be:
- If you experienced violence from a former partner, smelling their preferred brand of soap could lead to a flashback.
- If your parents shouted at or hurt you after drinking, hearing people raise their voices while drinking might bring forth emotions you experienced as a child.
Keeping a flashback journal can also help, since writing about it afterward could help you identify triggers leading up to it.
What’s more, journaling can also help you pay attention to any changes in recurring flashbacks, such as new emotions or visual details.
Grounding techniques can help you stay in the present and remember you’re safe during a flashback.
However, to reduce or prevent flashbacks entirely, it’s highly advisable that you work with a trained therapist.
Flashbacks are some of the many symptoms of PTSD, and it may be a good idea to start a comprehensive treatment plan.
In therapy, you can:
- learn to recognize triggers and come up with productive ways to navigate them
- begin to process and work through the trauma you experienced
- explore healthy boundaries that help you feel safer in relationships
- learn to navigate flashbacks with less fear and distress
This list of resources may help you seek the support you need:
- American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool
- American Psychological Association’s Find a Psychologist tool
- Asian Mental Health Collective’s therapist directory
- Association of Black Psychologists’ Find a Psychologist tool
- National Alliance on Mental Illness Helplines and Support Tools
National Institute of Mental Health’s Helpline Directory
- National Queer and Trans Therapists of Color Network
- Inclusive Therapists