Flashbacks happen when you feel like you are reliving a traumatic experience or memory. They can occur day or night, and can occur recently or even years after the event. You may remember the entire event or only details such as sounds and smells.
Flashbacks can occur in veterans who have experienced a traumatic event. While not always, flashbacks are often a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They can occur as a result of combat, a training accident, sexual trauma or other traumatic events. If you are having flashbacks, know you are not alone. Help is available.
It is important to talk to your health care provider if you have flashbacks. Flashbacks, as well as other PTSD symptoms, can eventually limit your ability to enjoy life and affect how you act in social settings [PDF 160KB]. This includes at work or in your family life. A provider can explain why flashbacks may be occurring and help you work through them with an effective treatment. Potential treatments include:
- Prolonged exposure therapy: Repeatedly talking about the traumatic event in memory and describing the event aloud in detail until your memories of it no longer feel upsetting.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): While thinking about or discussing your memories, you are taught to shift your focus away from the memories. For example, you may focus on eye movements or tapping instead. This can help change how you react to memories of your trauma.
- Cognitive processing therapy: This type of therapy teaches you skills to change your negative thoughts and beliefs associated with trauma so they become less distressing. You can then begin to change how you feel and your behavior.
While the occurrence of flashbacks usually improves as your PTSD treatment progresses, there are strategies you can use to better manage flashbacks in between your appointments. They can help you safely cope and prevent flashbacks from affecting your daily life. If you are experiencing flashbacks, try these tips on your own during or right after a flashback.
- Tell yourself you are having a flashback. Talk to yourself (literally) and note where you are now and that you are safe.
- Remind yourself that the traumatic event is over. It happened in the past and you are in the present.
- Help yourself stay present by using your five senses. Look around you. Walk into another room and drink a glass of water. Speak with a loved one you trust.
- Know what makes you feel secure. For example, wrapping a warm blanket around yourself, practicing breathing or relaxation exercises, or calling a friend.
- Learn the triggers that lead to your flashback. After a flashback, use a notebook to write down what happened right before, what you heard and how you felt.
If you or a loved one needs additional support, contact the Psychological Health Resource Center 24/7 to confidentially speak with trained health resource consultants. Call 866-966-1020 or use the Real Warriors Live Chat. You can also see a list of key psychological health resources here.
- “Coping with traumatic stress reactions.” (2015, Aug. 14). National Center for PTSD, Department of Veterans Affairs.
- Iribarren, J., Prolo, P., Neagos, N., & Chiappelli, F. (2005, Sept. 12). “Post-traumatic stress disorder: Evidence-based research for the third millennium.” [PDF 160KB]Oxford University Press,2(4), 503-512.
- McLean, C. & Foa, E. “Prolonged exposure therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder: A review of evidence and dissemination." (2011). Expert Reviews. [PDF 617KB].
- “Flashbacks(link is external)"(n.d.). Make the Connection.
- Chen, Y., Hung, K., Tsai, J., Chu, H., Chung, M., Chen, S. and Liao, Y. “Efficacy of eye- movement desensitization and reprocessing for patients with posttraumatic-stress disorder: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials.” (2014, Aug. 7). PLOS One.
- “Understanding Posttraumtic Stress Disorder”. [PDF 7.43MB] (2013 May). VA/DoD Evidence Based Practice Guidelines.