A flashback is when a person relives a traumatic memory. This could be via intrusive memories, but it could also be via reliving certain emotions or physical sensations from the event.

The media sometimes portrays flashbacks as being like a film that plays inside a person’s mind. Flashbacks can be like this, but according to the charity, Mind, they are not always.

Flashbacks can be fragmented, still images, or not visual at all. Some people may only experience emotional flashbacks, while others might only have physical sensations.

Read on to learn more about flashbacks, including the causes, what flashbacks feel like, what to do during a flashback, and whether they go away.

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Flashbacks are intense and involuntary memories that make a person feel as though they are reliving a traumatic event.

These memories can be visual, meaning a person sees all or parts of the event in their mind, but they can also be emotions a person felt during the event, or physical sensations they experienced during the event.

Flashbacks can affect people in many ways and vary in intensity. Some are brief or mild, while others can last longer, or make a person lose awareness of their current surroundings.

Flashbacks vs. memories

There is a difference between having a flashback and simply remembering something that happened in the past. The main distinction is whether a person feels connected to the present moment.

A person recalling a memory of the past knows that the memory is a past event, but a person having a flashback will feel, physically or emotionally, like they are there again.

The same is true for the emotions a memory conjures up. If a person has a flashback, they will typically experience very strong emotions that are just as intense as they were during the original event.

In contrast, the emotions a person feels when they remember something will typically not be as intense, or if they are, this intensity may change or fade over time.

In PTSD, psychological trauma is the cause of flashbacks. Traumatic events can be any event or series of events that are threatening, scary, or cause extreme distress. This can include car collisions, war, or violence, but it may also include other causes, such as:

  • living in an unsafe home or neighborhood
  • experiencing poverty
  • discrimination
  • sexual harassment
  • emotional neglect (when caregivers tend to a child’s physical needs but not their emotional needs)
  • hearing about or witnessing something traumatic happen to someone else

This last example is known as vicarious trauma.

Not everyone who experiences traumatic events will develop long-term symptoms. Around 61–80% of people will experience a traumatic event, but only 5–10% meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) afterward.

Flashbacks are a symptom of PTSD, but people can also meet the criteria for a diagnosis even if they do not experience them.

PTSD flashbacks will vary from person to person, depending on the memory they are reliving and the specific way they experience flashbacks.

An emotional flashback may cause:

  • strong and sudden emotions that occur in response to a trigger, or reminder of the traumatic event
  • emotions that feel how it felt to experience the event
  • confusion, if a person knows these feelings are not proportionate to the situation

A somatic flashback may cause:

  • physical pain or pressure
  • breathlessness
  • sweating
  • a rapid pulse
  • smelling specific odors
  • hearing certain sounds
  • tasting certain flavors

Some people with somatic flashbacks may also replay the memory in their minds, replay only certain parts, or see still images. The images may be in the right or wrong order, with parts that are faster or slower.

People who experience flashbacks or PTSD may also show signs of avoidance. This is when a person avoids their triggers, even if this means going out of their way to do so in order to avoid experiencing symptoms.

When a person is experiencing a flashback, it helps to bring them back to the present moment and to create a feeling of safety. This can look different for each person, but some approaches that may help include:

  • Touching a meaningful object: An object that reminds a person of the present, which is small enough to carry around with them, may help when flashbacks occur. This could be a piece of jewelry, a stone or crystal, or other discrete object the person can carry with them.
  • Grounding: There are several grounding techniques that may help a person focus back on the present. Counting objects in the environment, noticing physical sensations, or breathing exercises are some examples.
  • Self-soothing: A person may find it helpful to tell themselves they are safe, to hug themselves, or to do something that feels comforting, such as wrapping up in a blanket.

It can also help to prepare in advance for flashbacks, just in case they occur. It may be beneficial to:

  • Create a safe space: This is a comforting place a person can go when they feel unsafe. For example, a person might make their bedroom feel calm by making a few changes, such as using dimmable lights. Outside the home, identify places a person can go when they are experiencing flashbacks, such as a staff room.
  • Create a self-care plan: This could involve a set of instructions or a list of strategies that a person finds helpful during flashbacks. Having this written down means a person does not need to try to think of them when they are having symptoms.
  • Build a support network: Letting trusted friends, family, or a therapist know about the flashbacks, and what to do when they occur, can help others support individuals with PTSD.

Yes, PTSD flashbacks can stop, but they do not always resolve on their own. According to a 2023 research article, 30% of people with PTSD fully recover, while another 40% get better with treatment.

In a small number of cases, some people may receive enough support and are able to cope well enough with the impact of the traumatic event that they do not need formal treatment.

However, people do not need to wait to see if this happens. If they can, it is best to seek advice about flashbacks from a mental health professional. If the symptoms are impacting a person’s well-being or quality of life, they should seek treatment.

Learn more about treatments for trauma and PTSD.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 988. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can use their preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.

Find more links and local resources.

Was this helpful?

Flashbacks are a potential symptom of PTSD. They involve reliving aspects of a traumatic event. This could include the emotions, physical sensations, or memories of the event. Sometimes, it may involve all three.

Flashbacks vary in severity. Some people may experience them infrequently or less intensely than others. They occur after a person experiences something extremely distressing, such as an accident, severe illness, violence, or an ongoing experience — such as poverty.

Treatment can significantly reduce the impact of flashbacks and how often they occur. With support, a full recovery from trauma and PTSD is possible.