Hector fought as an Army Ranger, but his biggest battles were after deployment. From flashbacks that almost cost him his life, to posttraumatic stress, and finally becoming a counselor for Veterans himself, Hector learned firsthand about the power of resilience. Find out how he reclaimed his life by getting help from VA.
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 deployment when war scenes are shown on TV or in a movie. Other Veterans find that just experiencing the same feelings that they felt in the past can remind 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.
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 about whether or not 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 you think 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.
If I’m experiencing a flashback, what can I do about it right away?
“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.”
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 them what is happening
- Remind yourself that your reaction is a common response after trauma
Talking to your family and friends can be a good first step. You may want to tell them what you’re feeling and experiencing. 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.
“I used to think of my flashbacks as a way of remembering what happened over there, of remembering my battle buddies. But that wasn’t healthy for me at all, and talking to someone about it helped me to come up with better ways of memorializing that part of my life.”
Every day, Veterans connect with useful 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 family 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 advisor
Explore these resources for more information about flashbacks in Veterans.
Learn more about the possible associations between flashbacks and other issues such as stress and anxiety, feeling on edge, posttraumatic stress, and effects of military sexual trauma.
If you are a combat Veteran or experienced any sexual trauma during your military service, 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.
VA Medical Center Facility Locator
Flashbacks could be a sign of other health conditions that need attention. This website will allow you to search for VA programs located near you. If you are eligible to receive care through the Veterans Health Administration, you can enroll in one of VA’s treatment programs.