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What are flashbacks?

Do you sometimes feel as if you are reliving a past event? Does a noise, smell, or something you see seem to send you back to the scene of a traumatic event? Do bad feelings or strong emotions from another time come up unexpectedly and strongly, causing you to lose track of your surroundings? These may be signs of flashbacks.

A flashback occurs when you feel as if you are re-experiencing a traumatic event. You might remember everything about the event as if you were going through it again — vividly recalling the sights, sounds, smells, and other details. You might even have the same feelings or physical sensations that you had at the time of the event.

Some Veterans may experience flashbacks when they are in situations that are similar to a traumatic event from the past. For example, a combat Veteran may have flashbacks to his or her time in the military when war scenes are shown on TV or in a movie or when a car backfires. Other Veterans find that just experiencing the same feelings felt in the past reminds them of a traumatic event, even if the circumstances are not the same. For example, the stress of being in a car accident may trigger flashbacks to an assault.

“It didn’t take much to send my mind back there. Trash on the side of the road, large crowds of people, fireworks – a lot of things seemed to trigger flashbacks. Even though I knew it wasn’t real, it still felt like it throughout my body.”

Often a symptom of posttraumatic stress, flashbacks can interfere with your ability to enjoy life. They can be stressful or disturbing, and you may worry whether you’ll have flashbacks in certain situations or out in public. You may be concerned about what people will think, or try to avoid social events that might trigger flashbacks. They can also be a cause of alarm to your family and friends, especially if they don’t understand what’s happening or know about some of the difficult things you have experienced.

If I’m experiencing a flashback, what can I do about it right away?

A flashback can be a distressing experience for you as well as the people around you. Try to remember to:

  • Keep your eyes open, look around you, and notice where you are.
  • Remind yourself how this situation is different than the traumatic event.
  • Acknowledge how you are feeling.
  • Try grounding yourself by focusing on details of your surroundings or neutral physical sensations, such as the feeling of your feet on the floor.
  • Practice relaxation exercises, such as taking slow, deep breaths.
  • Concentrate on something good about your present life, such as your family or friends or the ability to do things that you enjoy.
  • Get up and move around, have a drink of water, or wash your hands.
  • Call someone you trust and tell him or her what is happening.
  • Remind yourself that your reaction is a common response after trauma.

Talking to your family and friends about what you're feeling and experiencing can be a good first step. They may be able to provide support and help you deal with your flashbacks when they occur. You can also begin to let them know when certain things may trigger a flashback.

Take the next step: Make the connection.

Every day, Veterans who served in the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, and Coast Guard connect with proven resources and effective treatments for flashbacks. If flashbacks are affecting your health and well-being or getting in the way of your relationships, work, or daily activities, you may want to reach out for support. Consider connecting with:

  • Your doctor. Ask if your doctor has experience treating Veterans or can refer you to someone who does.
  • A mental health professional, such as a therapist
  • Your local VA Medical Center or Vet Center. VA specializes in the care and treatment of Veterans.
  • A spiritual or religious adviser

Explore these resources for more information about flashbacks among Veterans.

Learn more about what you can do if you are experiencing specific concerns related to flashbacks, such as stress and anxiety, feeling on edge, posttraumatic stress, and effects of military sexual trauma.

National Center for PTSD
This website provides information, resources, and practical advice for Veterans, their family and friends, and the public when dealing with trauma.
www.ptsd.va.gov/public/index.asp

AfterDeployment
This website has wellness resources for Veterans and Service members, including information and self-help tools for posttraumatic stress and other issues they commonly experience.
www.afterdeployment.dcoe.mil

Moving Forward: Overcoming Life’s Challenges
Moving Forward is a free online educational and life-coaching program that teaches problem-solving skills to help you better handle life’s challenges. While it’s designed to be especially helpful for Veterans, Service members, and their families, Moving Forward teaches skills that can be useful to anyone with stressful problems.
www.veterantraining.va.gov/movingforward

Vet Center
If you are a combat Veteran, you can bring your DD214 to your local Vet Center and speak with a counselor or therapist — many of whom are Veterans themselves — for free, without an appointment, and regardless of your enrollment status with VA. In addition, any Veteran who was sexually traumatized while serving in the military is eligible to receive counseling regardless of gender or era of service.
www2.va.gov/directory/guide/vetcenter_flsh.asp

VA Medical Center Facility Locator
Flashbacks may be related to other health conditions that need attention. VA provides world-class health care to eligible Veterans. Most Veterans qualify for cost-free health care services, although some Veterans must pay modest copays for health care or prescriptions. Explore your eligibility for health care using VA's Health Benefits Explorer tool and find out more about the treatment options available to you.
www2.va.gov/directory/guide/home.asp?isflash=1