Artwork © 2015 Jocelyn Patrick

Flashbacks Technique

Flashbacks cause sexual and physical abuse survivors to temporarily associate the re-experiencing of emotions and sensations associated with the abuse trauma, while simultaneously dissociating from the comfort and security of the present.


Although flashbacks may appear to be random, they are usually triggered by a “traumatic associational cue” in the form of a sensory experience of sight, sound, taste, smell and/or touch, or an event that literally or figuratively resembles some aspect of the abuse trauma. Once it has been mastered with a therapist's help, the four-step approach described can be used by the client to de-potentiate the effect of flashbacks as they occur and when trying to make sense of them afterwards. In reference to this technique, one sexual abuse survivor said it enabled her to feel more in control because "if you name it, you can tame it."

These following four steps will help in experiencing more understanding, and resulting control of the flashback experience, in the therapy setting. These steps were adapted from an approach initially developed by American psychiatrist and psychologist, Milton H. Erickson (Zieg, 2013), argueably of the most influential psychoanalysts of the 20th century.

Four Steps:

  1. When have I felt this way before?
  2. In what ways are the current situations and the past situation similar? (Setting, time of year, sight, sounds, sensations, colors, resemblance to past people, etc.)
  3. How is the current situation different from the situation in the past in which I felt similar feelings? (Self, setting, people, sensory experience, life circumstances, personal resources, ability to choose.)
  4. What actions, if any, do I want to take to feel better in the present? (safe place, containment, grounding.)

While these steps may seem simple and self explanatory, it can be very hard to come to any objective conclusion during a flashback. I keep a small notebook with me at all times, including placing it inside my purse when I leave home. Once I'm grounded enough to do so, I write down everything I can remember about the flashback.

Before completing the first four steps, I ask myself:

  1. “What happened just now?”
  2. “What details can I recall?”
  3. “How did I feel during the flashback?”
  4. “How do I feel now?”

Afterwards, I then complete the four step approach. This way, I have a detailed record of my feelings, along with details of the flashback, to help me later in my next therapy session. Once I finish writing out the four step approach, I close the notebook immediately, and put it somewhere safe. This enables me to use containment until I'm with my therapist. Then, I can go back and slowly process the memory safely once I'm with my therapist, who can guide me through it.

Important Notes:

I do this strictly for working with my therapist. I would not advise anyone to write anything other than the first four steps if you can't emotionally do so for whatever reason (when its not a good time, place, or too emotionally painful).

Keep in mind, I do not read through what I have written again once I have taken these steps until I am with my therapist. I would not advise anyone to try and process any memory/flashback without the help of a qualified counselor/ therapist.


Original Source:
Two Rivers Psychiatric Hospital. (2003). Rules for Recovery. [patient informational handout].

Patient Handout Transcribed From:
Zeig, J. K. (2013). Ericksonian methods: The essence Of The story. New York, NY: Routledge [originally published by Psychology Press, 1994]