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If you're having flashbacks

Flashbacks are vivid memories that can feel very real and like they are happening now. Learn more about flashbacks and ways to cope with them here.

What are flashbacks?

Flashbacks usually happen suddenly, without warning. They are vivid memories of a traumatic event that feel like they are happening now. You may re-experience what you saw, heard, smelt, felt and your body's reactions, such as a fast heartbeat. They can last from seconds to hours.

What do flashbacks feel like?

Flashbacks feel different for different people. They can happen at anytime, even when we're feeling happy. 

They can be very scary and distressing as you re-experience your trauma and it can feel like it's really happening. You may see what happened as single images or like a film, hear sounds or words, or feel as though you're being touched. You might be able to smell or taste something linked to your trauma and your body might react the same way by your heart beating fast or sweating.

Flashbacks can make you feel vulnerable, anxious and scared. They can leave you feeling isolated and not wanting to talk to anyone. You might experience intense feelings of anger, shame or numbness.

Why do I have flashbacks?

We don't really understand why flashbacks happen but there are two current theories:

  1. Flashbacks are your brain replaying a traumatic event to try to understand it. It tries to work out what exactly happened and whether the situation could have been avoided.
  2. You have a flashback when your brain has recognised similarities between your current situation and your experience of sexual violence. Your 'fight or flight' response is triggered and your body reacts instinctively and causes the same reactions that kept you alive during the last time your life was in danger. This theory suggests flashbacks are an attempt to get you to repeat your previous life-saving behaviour.

Who has flashbacks?

Anyone who has experienced trauma might experience flashbacks. They are a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD was recognised after World War One, when many soldiers returned from battle with 'shell shock', causing them flashbacks, nightmares and extreme anxiety. 

Survivors of war are still often affected by PTSD and flashbacks. They are also experienced by people who've been involved in traffic accidents, natural disasters or any other deeply upsetting or traumatic experience, including sexual violence and abuse.

What causes flashbacks?

Flashbacks can happen at any time. They can happen when we're feeling really good about ourselves and happy, when we are really relaxed, when we are feeling low, even when we're sleeping. 

Sometimes they happen when we are 'triggered'. This is when we come across something that reminds us of our traumatic experience. This could be a familiar sound or smell. It could be hearing a song or watching television. It could be being in the place we were abused.

Flashbacks are a common response to sexual violence. You are not alone. There are things you can do to help manage and reduce flashbacks.

Managing flashbacks

There are some things you can do to help manage the effects of flashbacks

During a flashback

Flashbacks can be very frightening. Everyone is different but these are some techniques you could try for managing them:

  • Tell yourself you're having a flashback. This isn't happening now. It's in the past.
  • Tell yourself that you're OK. You are strong. You are a survivor.
  • Focus on the present. Look for differences between then and now.
  • Ground yourself.
  • Do what makes you feel safe. This might be curling up in bed, wrapping yourself in a blanket or, if in public, finding somewhere private like a bathroom.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply. Put your hand on your stomach and breathe in, expanding your stomach so your hand rises. Watch the video below to help slow down your breathing.

After a flashback

Be proud of yourself that you got through it and give yourself a break. Do something relaxing or that you enjoy. Listen to music, eat some chocolate, have a hot shower or a cup of tea.

Talk to someone. Tell them about your flashbacks and how you cope so they can help you. Maybe you like to be alone after flashbacks or maybe you like to be around others. They can also help ground you in future if you have a flashback when you're with them.

Process your flashback. If you feel up to it you can write about your flashback. This can help you get it out of your mind.

Minimising triggers

Some triggers might be 'obvious', like hearing about someone else's experience of sexual violence or being in the place it happened. Others might be less easy to predict, such as a smell. 

If you can identify some of the things that trigger your flashbacks, it can help you prepare. For example, you could make sure you have someone who knows about your flashbacks with you for support, or practise grounding techniques in advance.

Though it might sound like a good idea to avoid your triggers, that's not necessarily always helpful. It might actually increase your anxiety levels and stop you from doing things you enjoy.