The Nature of Flashbacks

Flashbacks are experiences of reliving a past traumatic event as if it is occurring now. Usually they will include vivid imagery and extreme emotions. Flashbacks can be stimulated by a current smell (for example, cologne), sight (a person, place, or thing), a sounds (raised voice, slamming door, music), taste (chocolates), or touch (a hand on your shoulder). Re-experiencing can happen a long time after the event and be brief or lengthy, superficial or deep, sudden or slow to arrive, simple of complex in their content, and may involve one sense or several.

Mini flashbacks can last for seconds, a tiny blip in the memory, and lengthy ones can continue for an hour or more. It is also possible to experience a dissociated state for several days, feeling barely connected to the here and now.

For the adult survivor of trauma, flashbacks are a dissociative, or altered state of consciousness – one that involves separating from the present and regressing to sensory, emotional, or cognitive experiences of the past. Typically, flashbacks are involuntary. They cannot be willed to come or go. A particular flashback might repeat day after day. Some survivors become aware of sensory flashbacks, especially visual ones, years before they know what they are or what they mean. These experiences are frightening intrusions and increase concern that something is wrong with people, or that they are “crazy”.

In a flashback, a person re-experiences the original abuse. The flashbacks may be accompanied by the feelings that the person felt at the time, or they may be stark and detached, like watching a movie about somebody else’s life.

Frequently flashbacks are visual: “I saw this penis coming toward me” or “I couldn’t see his face, just the big black belt he always wore.” Not everyone is visual. Flashbacks may be heard, and some survivors have described how they have never seen anything but have heard the perpetrator’s threats, brutality and violation.

Some survivors do not understand why or what is happening, but are aware that certain situations trouble them. Some examples include watching contact sports, sitting with others in a closed car, or standing at a crowded bar. These situations may feel troubling long before you understand why. As flashbacks become more a part of their daily life, a survivor may realise that certain people, settings, events, or feelings stimulate or deter flashbacks. Sitting in a certain chair or thinking about their childhood may tend to bring on flashbacks, whereas a brisk walk or an entertaining television programme may discourage them. People can achieve some indirect control of flashbacks as they evoke, avoid, or leave the kind of emotional of physical setting that encourages the flashbacks.


Triggers can be anything in your present day reality that reminds you either consciously or unconsciously, of past sexual abuse. Sometimes survivors can easily see how a trigger connects to the abuse. Other times the connection is less clear, and survivors may know only that something bothers and upsets them. Memory loss is a frequent repercussion of abuse, and can keep survivors from understanding the reasons behind their reactions to certain situations. Some triggers may be difficult to identify because they are related to a highly specific aspect of the abuse. Since triggers can be almost anything, it is important to take seriously a person’s reaction. Having awareness of triggers can give a person an insight into particulars about the abuse and help facilitate recovery. Identifying triggers gives the survivors power. Triggers lose their secrecy and possibly their potency once they are understood. Once the mystery is explained, a person may still react, but may not be surprised or horrified by the reaction.

Points to Remember

–          When a sexual assault happens, it affects the person as a whole; their body as well as their emotions and thoughts.

–          Remind yourself that you are not going crazy; flashbacks are a normal response to a traumatic event.

–          Become aware of what the flashbacks are, and ways of coping with them.

–          Ask your counsellor to help with awareness and ways of coping.

–          Be willing to feel (let yourself get in touch and express how you feel about what happened). Listen to these feelings and do something about them.

–          Try grounding or relaxation techniques to help you to relax and stay present when you feel that a flashback may be imminent.

–          Have a support person to talk to.

–          Keep reminding yourself that flashbacks, although scary, are from the past and cannot hurt you now.

–          Look after yourself! Write a list of things that you can do for yourself and when you are feeling low, do them. Keep it handy.


Flashback with a partner

Intimate moments may be a powerful trigger for survivors of sexual abuse. If a survivor finds themselves bombarded by flashbacks, talking helps. One woman and her husband developed the code word ‘ghosts’. Which she would say whenever she had a flashback. This would alert her husband that they were no longer in present time, and he could then respond in a way that made her feel safe.

What is appropriate will vary. Sometimes survivors may want their partner to leave them alone, so they can stay with the flashback and open it up, to gain information about the past. Other times, survivors will choose to stay in the present. At those times, the survivor could say to their partner, “I want to stay here, with you. I don’t want to go back to the past. Help me stay here. Talk to me. Call my name. Remind me who you are.”

Survivors have a right to feel good in their present experience, even if it means regular reality checks to remind themselves that the abuser is no longer anywhere near them.

The fact that some survivors have flashbacks or painful feelings while making love may eliminate their desire for sex. People want to have sex because it makes them feel good, connected, and whole. If sex dredges up pain, grief, and anguish, it makes sense that they experience a lack of desire.

(The Courage to Heal: A guide for women survivors of Childhood Sexual Assault (1988:249) Ellen Bass and Laura Davis)


Reclaiming One’s life from the effect of Flashbacks

There are many different ways of reclaiming one’s life from the effects of flashbacks. All survivors’ stories are unique and different just as their perspective and ideas about what it means to deal with the Flashbacks are different. The following strategies are some of the means by which people have escaped the effects of the flashbacks.

STOP and become aware. Acknowledge what is happening in your body or in your head. Try to determine what the trigger is. Is there a connection between some part of your present experience and the abuse of the past?

CALM yourself. Tune into your body. Tell yourself some reassuring things. Check that you are still breathing, slow breaths. Relax your body.

AFFIRM your present reality. Look around, touch things, and see where you are and who you are with. Remind yourself that what you are doing and experiencing now is different from what happened to you during the abuse.

CHOOSE a response. This may be to remove yourself from the trigger, alter the trigger so it doesn’t bother you so much, approach slowly with full awareness of past responses, pay close attention to thoughts and feelings.

(The Sexual Healing Journey: A Guide for Survivors of Sexual Abuse (1992) Wendy Maltz)


For more information and support, please contact Laurel House (North) on 6334 2740, Laurel House North West on 6431 9711, or email counsellors@laurelhouse.org.au