Dealing with flashbacks

I was travelling along okay and then ‘BANG’, from nowhere, I was straight back there. It spun me out. I had no idea what was happening.

What is a flashback? 

A flashback is a re-living in the present of a past traumatic event, where you feel as if it is happening right now. Flashbacks can appear as flashes or fragments that last a few brief seconds or involve extensive memory recall.  

Flashbacks can occur day or night and can take you completely by surprise. They can be in the first person (where it feels like you are right there, seeing and experiencing things through your eyes) or the third person (where it can be like you are watching a movie in which you are the central character).  Sometimes flashbacks can replay events of which you were previously unaware or had long forgotten. 

Flashbacks can take many forms: 

  • Visual memories: Images, moving and static, high definition colour, black and white, distorted and foggy. 
  • Auditory memories: Sounds, voices, breathing, music, doors shutting, footsteps. 
  • Emotional memories: Loneliness, distress, hopelessness, rage, terror, dread, danger or a complete lack of feelings (numbness). 
  • Body memories: Physical sensations including pain, nausea, gagging sensation, difficulty swallowing, feeling restricted, difficulty breathing. 
  • Sensory memories: Smells and tastes 
  • Combinations of all of the above

When a flashback is occurring, the present can become confused with the past. You can feel out of control, like you are going crazy. People can develop breathing difficulties, experience dizziness, disorientation, muscle tension, pounding heart, shaking, an inability to concentrate, a fight, flight, freeze response. 

“I know the abuse happened over 20 years ago, but it felt like I was in the room with her; the smell, the confusing mix of fear, panic and excitement. I just froze.”


Sometime what has triggered a flashback can be immediately visible (like driving past your old school, seeing something on the news). However, some uncomfortable memories can be triggered by larger changes in circumstances (moving town, starting a relationship or new job). Flashbacks can also be associated with a particular feeling like fear or panic.    

What can make flashbacks particularly difficult is that they can surprise you, appear apparently out of nowhere as a partial memory of an event of which you previously had limited or no recollection.    

What can help? 

Below are some ways of dealing with flashbacks: 

Find a safe place. 

If you are aware that the place you are in or the people around you maybe triggering the flashback, if you can, remove yourself to a safer place. 

Name what is happening. 

Tell yourself that you are having a flashback, that this is a memory from the past and that you can take care of yourself in the present. 


Breathe slowly and deeply.  Often when we are surprised or scared, we breathe more rapidly and reduce our oxygen intake. Lack of oxygen can enhance feelings of panic: it can result in pounding in the head, tightness, feeling faint, shakiness and dizziness. Pause and count slowly to five as you breathe out, it will help slow your breathing down and will calm you physiologically.   

A useful focussed breathing exercise is the 3,4,5 Breath Exercise.  

3,4,5 Breath Exercise:

  • Breathe in for a count of 3
  • Hold your breath for a count of 4
  • Breath out for a count of 5

When you are not having a flashback take time to practice deep breathing.  Learn to breathe from your belly; put your hand just below your navel and breathe, so that your hand gets pushed out when you breathe in and in as you breathe out.  Practice and Repeat,  

Anchor and physically ground yourself in the present   

  • Check out and practice Grounding exercises that physically engage you in the present and activate your senses. 
  • Consciously stretch, move and walk around. 
  • Stamp your feet; grind them around on the floor to remind yourself where you are now. 
  • Make, hold and take time to taste a drink  
  • Hold an ice cube in your hand or place one on the back of your neck 
  • Look around, notice what is going in your immediate vicinity: name the people, the place, the furniture, the lay of the land, colours etc. 
  • Listen to the sounds around you: the traffic, voices, the washing machine, etc. 
  • Notice how you are standing or sitting, your clothes, feel the chair or floor supporting you. 
  • Connect with your pet and people around you.  
  • Actively bring your awareness into the present by gently ‘pinging’ an elastic band on your wrist, by splashing water on your face, – the physical sensations that are evoked are from the present, the content of the flashback is from the past. 

Remind yourself where you are in the present

Become familiar with the 5,4,3,2,1 exercise to focus your attention by naming: 

  • 5 things you can see 
  • 4 things you can touch 
  • 3 things you can hear 
  • 2 things you can smell 
  • 1 thing you can taste. 

Remind yourself who you are in the present

  • My full name is… 
  • I am .. years old 
  • My full home address is…. 
  • My job or work is… 
  • My favourite car is… 
  • My favourite activity to relax is…. 
  • I am able to obtain support and assistance from… 
  • … helps me to stay grounded and connected in my life. 

Refocus your mind

As you are feeling more physically connected, refocus your mind.   

  • Focus your mind on upcoming tasks, write yourself a list, record a note on your phone of things to do.   
  • Make use of your phone to orient you to the present, listen to music that you enjoy, look at engaging Apps that bring good energy into your life.   
  • Call or talk with a supportive friend. 
  • Ask yourself, what am I going to do next? 

If flashbacks keep occurring

It can be a useful strategy to carry and wear items that are very much part of your current adult life and firmly anchor you in the present 2020s, things that weren’t around back then, a phone, watch, ring, wrist band. 

Connect and access support

It can be useful to let trusted people around you know that you can experience flashbacks and how they might assist. Friends can help you to slow your breathing, to talk to you, to get you a warm drink. The purpose is to help reconnect with the present in a safe and supportive way. 

Be kind to yourself

Like when we experience a migraine, a flashbacks can exhaust us and knock us about a bit. After a flashback you might want to rest for a while, have a sleep, relax and listen to some music, check the news or go for a walk, play a game, do some gardening or just take some quiet time for you.   

Words of support and encouragement to yourself are more likely to help you deal with flashbacks than questioning and evaluating yourself. 

Identifying triggers

If flashbacks and fragments of memories keep reappearing and are getting in the way of living your life, it can be useful, with appropriate support, to increase awareness of what might be triggering flashbacks right now?     

If a memory is known, recognised and accepted as an earlier life experience it is less likely to bother you in the present, even if the event was upsetting and you wish it had never happened.  

A piece in the jigsaw

Although flashbacks are overwhelmingly unwelcome visitors, sometimes they can bring forth information and feelings that fill in memory gaps. Some men have described how an awareness of triggers and flashbacks provided the ‘piece in the jigsaw’ that helped them make better sense of what happened.  

Progress with caution

While an awareness of the ‘trigger/s’ is useful, caution is encouraged.  It is important that any investigation prioritises safety and is focussed on identifying the ‘Flashback triggers in the present’, as different from focussed on the content of the flashback memory.   If we focus on the content of the flashback memory itself, on the trauma and abuse, more unwelcome memories may appear or flood forward.   

Access professional support

If you are experiencing flashbacks, it is helpful to talk with a qualified health care professional who is experienced in trauma counselling.  The counsellor will be able to assist you to identify triggers, managing flashbacks and address the impacts of trauma in the present.    

Identifying ‘flashback triggers in the present’

When you are safe and supported, if you choose to, you might identify and document:   

  • How you became aware of the flashback? What were the signs? 
  • What was the context, what was happening when the flashback occurred? 
  • Where were you? Who was around? What were you feeling/thinking/smelling/hearing/seeing/sensing? 
  • How is this particular context similar and different from the past? 
  • How are you different from the past? 
  • What resources, knowledge, skill, support do you have now that you did not have back then? 
  • What helps ground you and get you back on track to the present? 

An awareness of what triggers flashbacks, can assist you in recognising what is occurring and more quickly grounding yourself and regaining a sense of control in the present.    

Prioritise safety and enhance your life in the present.

In considering the above questions, designed to assist in identifying possible triggers, an emphasis should always be on your safety, on recognising and developing your resources and enhancing your life in the present.   

DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this page is general in content and is not a substitute for professional advice.