What are flashbacks?
Flashbacks are the name given to times when memories of a past trauma intrude on the present. These memories can be so intense that it can feel as if the trauma is happening now. Flashbacks can include a range of experiences, including:
- Seeing images connected to the trauma. This can be like watching a video of what happened. It can also involve seeing aspects of the trauma, but not the whole picture.
- Physical sensations connected to the trauma. This might include pain, pressure, nausea and/or the feeling of being touched.
- Sounds connected to the trauma. This might include the voice of those who hurt you, as well as some of the sounds that were going on at the time.
- Smells and tastes connected to the trauma.
- Overwhelming and intense emotions connected to the trauma. This might include sudden fear or helplessness, for example.
Some people find that all of their senses are affected. Others find each flashback centres around one or two different senses in isolation. The degree to which people feel connected to the outside – current – world during a flashback varies. Some find they are still aware of the present whilst simultaneously re-experiencing something from the past. Some find that the past experiences overlay the present moment almost entirely.
Some of the ways people find to manage flashbacks
Flashbacks can be incredibly distressing. These strategies aren’t magic fixes. What they can offer is some ways of getting through these experiences and taking care of yourself after they have happened.
Staying connected to the present moment
If you can, it can be useful to tell yourself that this is a flashback – that it belongs in the past and is not happening now.
Breathe. It’s natural to find your breathing rate changes when having a flashback. It can help to focus on your breathing, perhaps using counting to breathe in for 5 and out for 5 to help you gain some control over it.
Using anchors. Some people find it useful to have objects nearby that belong in the present and have no connection to the trauma. This might include, for example, carrying a stone or fidget toy in your pocket to reach for when you begin to feel a flashback starting. It could also involve having objects you can look at if you find yourself feeling frozen. The idea is to hold or look at the anchor and focus on its details – how it looks and feels, for example. Some people find it helpful to remind themselves that they are in the present and that they are OK.
A phrase or mantra. It can help to choose some words or a phrase that helps to remind you that you’re in the present and not back in the past. These might be lyrics from a favourite song, poem or religious text. They might be something you create that suits your circumstances and how you deal with it.
Noticing your surroundings. At times when you’re aware of your surroundings, however dimly, it can be helpful to try and focus on what is around you. One way of doing this is naming 5 things that you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell and 1 thing you can taste. Having a grounding kit (see below) can help with these – especially in finding something reassuring to smell and taste.
Create a grounding kit. Grounding is the word given for strategies that help connect you with the outside world and can help reduce the intensity of unwanted thoughts, feelings and memories. One way of doing this is through your senses.
A grounding kit is a way of preparing for flashbacks and intrusive memories, gathering some things that help you focus on a particular sense. For example, it might include a stone that you like to hold or something with a texture that you can focus on. It might also include something with a familiar or reassuring smell (for example, essential oils, aftershave or smelling salts). Some people put a few mints or sweets in there that don’t connect to the trauma in any way to help them focus on tastes that are in the present.
Use running water. Some people find running cool tap water over their wrists and focusing on it can help distract them from the experiences they’re struggling with.
Choosing what to do with any memories and/or feelings you’re left with
Flashbacks can leave people with distressing memories or sensations, even when they have passed. Different people handle this in different ways – only you will know what is right for you. The following are some options that you may want to think about.
Take care of yourself and wait for them to fade: Flashbacks do fade, in time. Some people find it helpful to follow some of the suggestions below on taking care of themselves and use these to move away from the memories evoked by the flashback.
Writing or drawing the memories and, safely, putting them away: Some people find it helpful to get some of the memories or feelings out by writing or drawing about them. This can be intense and it’s important to have some strategies to take care of yourself afterwards and move away from the memories once you’ve expressed them.
For some people this is too intense and can trigger further flashbacks (so it may be wise to move to taking care of yourself strategies instead of this kind of processing). If you do write or draw something it can also help to think what you want to do with what you have created. Some people gain relief through ripping up the paper, for example. Others find somewhere safe to store it, maybe bringing it to counselling to talk through with someone they trust.
Taking care of yourself after a flashback
Flashbacks can be incredibly intense experiences that can be draining, emotionally and physically. They can leave people with a sense of guilt, shame, disgust, anger and other strong emotions that are difficult to bear. They can also leave people feeling numb and feeling nothing at all – which can be equally overwhelming.
In amongst all this, the idea of being kind to yourself can feel shallow. Yet, if we were supporting someone else through something similar, we might really advocate for it. Being kind is more than a hashtag on social media. It can be a practice of recognising one’s own needs and doing something practical to try and meet them. This can take time to implement – tuning in to what we need can be hard at the best of times. Going through trauma can make it even harder.
The following ideas might help give you some ideas of things you might do after a flashback. Your own ideas will be best, though. If you’re in counselling with First Step – or someone else – you may want to chat these ideas through with your counsellor or someone else you trust.
Talking to someone: Some people find that it can be helpful to hear another human being after a flashback. This can help them move away from the intensity of the memory and back into everyday life. This conversation doesn’t have to be about the trauma – some people prefer to talk about topics that are in no way connected with what has happened. These can be safe topics that help connect them with current interests or what is happening around them. This might involve ringing someone you trust and letting them know you need a distraction-chat. It could also involve ringing a helpline (e.g. Samaritans) and telling them that you need to chat to help ground you after a flashback.
Move to a different space: Sometimes finding a way of moving your body to a different space can help leave some of the experiences behind. This might involve moving to a different part of the house, for example. Some people find the idea of safer spaces helpful – identifying places that feel safer inside and outside their house.
Grounding strategies: The grounding strategies, described above, can be useful in the aftermath of a flashback. They can help you connect with the world around you and put some distance between you and any distressing memories. For a deeper discussion of grounding strategies see https://nottssvss.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/coping-with-flashbacks-new.pdf
Create a YouTube or audio playlist: It can help to have some playlists prepared to help you reconnect after a flashback. Some people choose videos and songs that help change their head space. This might include creating a playlist of your favourite short but funny videos on YouTube. It might also include creating a music playlist of songs that help you feel stronger and more connected.
Finding your distraction sweet spot: Distraction strategies are things that help keep your mind occupied and away from unpleasant thoughts and feelings. They often only work for a short time but can be a really useful bridge between feeling wobbly after a flashback and feeling more connected with the present moment. It can help to choose something that interests you, whether this is gaming, playing the drums or something else. The sweet spot is an idea that something too complex might be frustrating but something too easy leaves your mind free to wander. Finding the sweet spot can include playing a game at a level that’s just distracting enough.
Finding comfort: What does comfort look like for you? That can be a hard and deep question, but it might be something to consider with someone you trust. Whether it’s eating something comforting, being somewhere comforting or doing something comforting – it can help to create a list of things that you find safe and reassuring to try after a flashback. The idea behind the list is that these things can be hard to think of when you most need them.
These are just some ideas. As we’ve said, your own ones will probably be much more useful than any list of strategies. Still, we hope that they’ve given you some ideas to work with.
If you live in Leicester, Leicestershire or Rutland and are male and aged 13+ do get in touch to see how we can help you heal from the impact of sexual abuse and sexual violence.