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 to connect with care.
Every day, Veterans from all military service branches and eras connect with proven resources and effective treatments for coping with flashbacks. Here’s how to take the next step: the one that’s right for you.
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- If you’re not using VA medical services, contact your nearest VA medical center or Vet Center to talk about your needs.
What about other options at VA? VA offers a variety of tools and resources.
- The Veteran Training online self-help portal for overcoming everyday challenges includes modules on managing anger, developing parenting and problem-solving skills, and more.
- Mental health apps for Veterans cover a variety of topics, ranging from PTSD to anger management to quitting smoking.
- VA TeleMental Health connects you with a VA mental health provider through a computer or mobile device in your home or at your nearest VA health facility. You can learn more about this option from your local VA medical center.
- Vet Centers provide support, counseling, and readjustment services for Veterans and active duty service members (including members of the National Guard and Reserve) who have served on active military duty in any combat theater or area of hostility or have experienced a military sexual trauma. Find a Vet Center near you or call 1-877-WAR-VETS (1-877-927-8387) to talk with a fellow combat Veteran about your experiences, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.
What about support beyond VA?
There’s a whole community of support ready to help with whatever you’re going through. Use this tool to find resources near you.
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.