December 6, 2023 Dec 06, 2023 11 min read
Despite being the most commonly discussed symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), research into the nature and prevalence of flashbacks is surprisingly limited. As a result, trauma survivors may feel unsure of what flashbacks actually are, what they feel like, or how to cope with them.
Often portrayed in movies and television as wild, full-body hallucinations, trauma flashbacks are often much more subtle than Hollywood would have us believe. And while some trauma survivors do experience PTSD-related hallucinations, flashbacks and hallucinations are not the same thing.
Below, we will discuss the basic definition of a trauma flashback as well as what causes them and how to cope.
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A trauma flashback is an experience characterized by feeling as if one is reliving aspects of a past traumatic event. When experiencing a flashback, someone might feel as if they’re reliving the experience entirely, seeing it play out vividly in their mind, or feeling certain sensations in their body that remind them of the event. Although flashbacks are strongly associated with PTSD, you don’t have to be formally diagnosed with PTSD to have a trauma flashback.
Trauma flashbacks are often portrayed as full-body hallucinations, during which an individual is suddenly transported back into a traumatic experience as if via time travel. While some trauma survivors might experience these types of hallucinatory flashbacks, most people who experience flashbacks can easily recognize that they are not actually reliving the event. That said, flashbacks are still extremely distressing as they can bring about physical symptoms of stress, fear, anxiety, and panic.
During a trauma flashback, an individual may experience any of the following:
Despite common misconceptions, flashbacks do not always involve seeing or experiencing the memory of a traumatic event as a clear narrative or vision. Many trauma survivors experience emotional or sensory flashbacks, during which they experience some physical or emotional aspect of the event without “seeing” or experiencing an explicit memory.
Flashbacks are usually brought on by sensory stimuli (sights, sounds, smells, tastes, or sensations) that remind us of a traumatic experience. However, they can also be brought on by thoughts, feelings, memories, anniversaries, and other non-sensory reminders of trauma.
Some examples of sensory triggers that can bring on flashbacks include:
Some examples of non-sensory flashback triggers include:
Because our brains and bodies can become triggered without our conscious awareness, the onset of flashbacks can sometimes feel random or unpredictable. As you become more familiar with your triggers, it will become easier to anticipate when and how flashbacks arise.
Now that we’ve established a clearer understanding of what flashbacks are and what causes them, let’s look at a few coping strategies.
The first and most important thing you can do when you notice a flashback coming on is to recognize what’s happening. Think or speak aloud to yourself, “I’m having a flashback. This isn’t real.”
You may also find it helpful to remind yourself of your present circumstances. For example, remind yourself of the date, your age, where you are, etc. Remind yourself that, while distressing, flashbacks are not inherently dangerous and that the traumatic event you experienced is in the past.
Of course, it’s important to ensure that you actually are safe before applying this strategy. It’s possible that you could be experiencing a flashback due to being in an unsafe situation that feels similar to a past traumatic experience. If this is the case, do whatever you can to get yourself to safety. That said, flashbacks often happen when we are not actually facing any imminent danger or threat.
Once you’ve ensured you’re safe and reminded yourself that you are no longer in danger, work on grounding yourself back into the present moment. A good way to do this is by using your five senses.
A popular sensory grounding technique is the 5-4-3-2-1 method. To use this strategy, open your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and then follow the steps below:
Using only what’s in your immediate environment…
When we experience flashbacks, we often become triggered, leading to feelings of anxiety, fear, stress or panic. Engaging in activities that feel calming and grounding can help soothe these feelings and return you to a state of relative ease.
Everyone will have a different idea of what feels grounding and calming, but some example activities include going for a walk, going swimming, taking a cold shower or warm bath, drawing or coloring, or hanging out with beloved pets.
While it can be tempting to turn to our phones, computers, tablets, or televisions when we’re triggered, it’s actually best to avoid these types of coping mechanisms. Engaging with screens can be a form of avoidance and dissociation for some people. As a result, using these types of coping mechanisms when we feel triggered can actually bolster the parts of our brains that fear the things that trigger us.
Finally, reaching out to trusted friends, family members, and other loved ones can be a great way to ground yourself back into the present moment during or after a flashback. Reaching out for support can also look like contacting your therapist or counsellor, calling a survivor support hotline, or visiting a survivor support group.
However you choose to reach out, sharing about your experiences with people you trust is a great way to feel supported, cared for, and safe as you learn to cope with flashbacks.
To find survivor support services in your area, use the Go Thrive Go search tool.
Dealing with trauma flashbacks is one of many distressing elements of post-traumatic stress. But there are several ways to cope with flashbacks in the moment and reduce their severity and frequency over time. The more skilled you become at responding to flashbacks when they arise, the more safety and security you will cultivate in your body and mind.
To learn more about triggers, trauma responses, and the ways they affect us, check out our article “Triggers and Trauma Responses: What They Are and How to Cope.”
Trauma flashbacks are experiences in which a trauma survivor is reminded (consciously or unconsciously) of a traumatic event, leading to a feeling of reliving some aspect of the past experience. Despite common misconceptions and misrepresentations in media, most trauma flashbacks do not involve hallucinations. Trauma flashbacks are typically brought on by sensory stimuli (sight, sound, smell, taste, or sensation), but they can also be triggered by emotions, memories, and thoughts. When an individual is having a flashback, they may experience physical symptoms of stress, fear, anxiety or panic. They may also see the memory of their traumatic experience playing out in their mind or feel some emotional or sensory element of the experience in their body. To cope with flashbacks, survivors should recognize the flashback for what it is, ground into the present moment, change their setting if possible, engage in calming activities, and/or reach out for support.
Dana Anastasia (they/them) is an independent writer, editor, podcaster, and artist. With a degree in interdisciplinary sociology and a background in domestic violence and sexual assault advocacy, Dana brings a keen awareness of victim and survivor needs and experiences to their work. Learn more at www.danaanastasia.com.
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