Navigating Flashbacks



by Pete Walker, MFT

[Focus on Bold Print when flashback is active]

1. Say to yourself: “I am having a flashback”. Flashbacks take us into a timeless part of the psyche that feels as helpless, hopeless and surrounded by danger as we were in childhood. The feelings and sensations you are experiencing are past memories that cannot hurt you now.

2. Remind yourself: “I feel afraid but I am not in danger! I am safe now, here in the present.” Remember you are now in the safety of the present, far from the danger of the past.

3. Own your right/need to have boundaries. Remind yourself that you do not have to allow anyone to mistreat you; you are free to leave dangerous situations and protest unfair behavior.

4. Speak reassuringly to the Inner Child. The child needs to know that you love her/him unconditionally– that s/he can come to you for comfort and protection when s/he feels lost and scared.

5. Deconstruct eternity thinking. In childhood, fear and abandonment felt endless – a safer future was unimaginable. Remember this flashback will pass as it always has before.

6. Remind yourself that you are in an adult body with allies, skills, and resources to protect you that you never had as a child.[Feeling small and fragile is sign of a flashback]

7. Ease back into your body. Fear launches you into “heady” worrying, or numbing and spacing out.
[a] Gently ask your body to Relax: feel each of your major muscle groups and softly encourage them to relax. [Tightened musculature sends unnecessary danger signals to the brain]
[b] Breathe deeply and slowly. [Holding the breath also signals danger].
[c] Slow down: rushing presses the psyche’s panic button.
[d] Find a safe place to unwind and soothe yourself: wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a pillow or a stuffed animal, lie down in a bed or in a closet or in a bath; take a nap.
[e] Feel the fear in your body without reacting to it. Fear is just an energy in your body. It cannot hurt you if you do not run from it.

8. Resist the Inner Critic’s Drasticizing and Catastrophizing: [a] Use Thought – stopping to halt its endless exaggeration of danger and constant planning to control the uncontrollable. Refuse to shame, hate or abandon yourself. Channel the anger of self-attack into saying NO to unfair self-criticism.

(I place a positive thought alongside any negative ones – sparrow)

[b] Use thought-substitution and Thought – correction to replace negative thinking with a memorized list of your qualities and accomplishments.

9. Allow yourself to grieve. Flashbacks are opportunities to release old, unexpressed feelings of fear, hurt, and abandonment. Validate and soothe your child’s past experience of
helplessness and hopelessness. Healthy grieving can turn our tears into self-compassion and our anger into self-protection.

10. Cultivate safe relationships and seek support. Take time alone when you need it, but don’t let shame isolate you. Feeling shame doesn’t mean you are shameful. Educate your intimates about flashbacks and ask them to help you talk and feel your way through them.

11. Learn to identify the types of triggers that lead to flashbacks. Avoid unsafe people, places, activities and triggering mental processes. Practice preventive maintenance with these steps when triggering situations are unavoidable.

12. Figure out what you are flashing back to. Flashbacks are opportunities to discover, validate and heal our wounds from past abuse and abandonment. They also point to our still unmet
developmental needs and can provide motivation to get them met.

13. Be patient with a slow recovery process: it takes time in the present to become de-adrenalized, and considerable time in the future to gradually decrease the intensity, duration and frequency of flashbacks. Real recovery is a gradually progressive process [often two steps forward,one step back], not an attained salvation fantasy. Don’t beat yourself up for having a flashback.

Pete Walker – My clients, who post this somewhere conspicuous until they memorize the gist of it, typically progress more rapidly in their recovery. You can easily print out a copy from the “13 Steps” page of my website:




For me, flashbacks have been very intense and overwhelming at times, especially the first few years I was having them, when I knew very little about what was going on. It was as if my entire being, – my body, emotions and mind, were all at once vomiting out experiences that had somehow been repressed and stored deep inside me; – experiences of abuse from my childhood.

Many times it was like being lost in a violent, stormy sea of painful body sensations, intense emotions, and fearful, negative thoughts; – which included thoughts I was having as a child when I was being abused. (some of these were being “fed’ to me by my abusers.) There were times I felt I would drown in this violent ocean.

Finding Pete Walker’s 13 Steps for Managing Flashbacks was an amazing act of grace and luck for me. Reading it while I was in a flashback would ease my panic and overwhelm and would help me find a centered, calm, and detached place within me. My flashbacks could still be very challenging, but it was like I had found a wise, calm, compassionate, and caring friend to help me. A friend within myself and a friend in Mr. Walker. I kept multiple copies of this list around and even had one tacked on my wall for awhile. It’s as if this list is a swift and graceful boat that helps me safely navigate the often wild seas of my subconscious mind, bringing me to a safer, calmer place within me.

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