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Living it again

Flashbacks are terrifying events.

Pastoral care Helen Thorne-Allenson
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photo: iStock

Without warning, minds are transported back in time. Trauma is re-lived in all its dimensions and a past bereavement, crime, accident or failure once again seems present and real. Far more than just a memory, every sight, sound and smell associated with the original occasion can reappear.

Reliving the horrors

Whilst some know a flashback is their mind playing tricks, others lose all sense of the ‘now’ and wholeheartedly believe they are back in the horrors of years gone by. Pulses can race, brows sweat – people can be left cowering, screaming in pain, as emotions overwhelm once more.

For those connected to the armed forces or emergency services, flashbacks can be a common experience. For many, they are a transitory state as the mind processes the chronic pain of war or the acute trauma of being a first-responder at an incident closer to home. For others, they linger – the subconscious replaying the ordeal at various times of the day or night.

But it’s not just those whose work takes them into the line of fire who can suffer – anyone who has experienced abuse, witnessed the death of a close friend or family member, or been part of an incident that brings great suffering, can know its scourge.

Helping those who hurt

Those struggling can benefit from opportunities to speak with those who are skilled – and medication to ease anxiety and panic has its place – but all God’s people have a vital role to play in helping those who hurt. Far from being scared to get involved with those whose lives are dominated by the past, we can move towards them in love, conscious that God is at work in them, and us, as he knows to be best.

Sharing truths about Jesus

Some of the most important truths to share with those who suffer are about the living Lord: his presence, wisdom, acceptance and the security he brings. The Psalms remind us that we are intimately known by God. The metaphors found in the Psalms help us to reflect that the Lord is a rock, a refuge, a fortress, a strong shepherd, a wing in whose shadow we can shelter – who provides someone with a place to run both as the flashback is occurring and after it ends.

Traumatic memories are sometimes strongest when people struggle to express openly what has happened to them in the past. Using phrases from the Psalms – as well as their own words – to describe disturbing events and the impact they have had, can define the pain more precisely, encourage people to turn to the Lord and, in the process, diffuse some of the past’s power.


At times, there can be a rhythm to flashbacks – specific triggers can make them more likely, specific times or places bring more frequent attacks. Pre-empting such moments with prayer, asking for the strength to turn to the Lord and trusting him to lead people through the memories (resolving to steer clear of alcohol, porn or self-destructive behaviour) can be a helpful step. Sitting with someone while the flashback is in progress (ensuring their physical safety and speaking quiet words of hope) can help people see that they are not alone in their trials. After the flashback has occurred, words of lament can help to bring the lingering emotions to the Lord. Asking for God’s comfort, strength and sustaining power is always wise.

Memory verses can be used to centre people on truth at a time when reading is likely to feel too hard. Appropriate physical touch – a hand on the shoulder, a linked arm – can bring a sense of tenderness and community (as long as it is wanted, of course).

Finally, flashbacks keep taking people to a point in time. Zooming out to the bigger picture can also help people not just to survive, but thrive. Reminding them that they were chosen before the beginning of time, reflecting on the wonder of the cross, helping them to look forward to the joys of eternal bliss can take the pressure off their experience of hurt. It can promote delight in worship too: whatever the pain of the moment, there is an everlasting God, who adores and sustains, ruling overall – and that fact brings hope to every believer’s heart.

More about Biblical Counselling UK is available at www.biblicalcounselling.org.uk or you can contact them at info@biblicalcounselling.org.uk or c/o Christ Church, Christchurch Street, Cambridge CB1 1HT