PTSD flashbacks can be terrifying. When something triggers your past trauma, it can be hard to feel in control of yourself. Learning more about your flashbacks and how they affect you can help you process them in the future.
What is PTSD?
While we might think of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as mainly affecting war veterans, it’s a mental health condition that can affect anyone with trauma.
Childhood abuse, sexual assault, gun violence, experiencing a natural disaster, and racist attacks can all give someone PTSD at any age. It can be managed with trauma-focused psychotherapy and certain antidepressants and other medications. Symptoms of PTSD include:
- avoidance of anything that reminds you of the trauma (triggers)
- hyperarousal and hypervigilance, even in calm situations
- memory issues
- sleep disorders, particularly insomnia
- intrusive thoughts and memories
- irritability and aggression
- panic attacks
- difficulty maintaining positive relationships
- drug and alcohol use
What is a PTSD flashback?
PTSD flashbacks are like nightmares. They’re similar to memories, but involve more physical and emotional sensations. You may feel like you’re actually living through the trauma all over again.
Not every flashback is exactly the same, and different people experience them differently. You may re-experience some parts of the trauma over again but not all the events from beginning to end. The flashback can last from a few seconds to a few hours. During a flashback, you might:
- feel confusion, fear, or anxiety
- feel physical sensations, such as pain
- see images or scenes from the traumatic event
- hear words or sounds from the traumatic event
- feel the same bodily reactions or emotions, such as a racing heartbeat
Flashbacks sometimes happen for no reason. But often, they’re triggered by things that remind you of your trauma. Examples of flashback triggers are:
- passing through the location of your traumatic event
- seeing someone who reminds you of your trauma
- media that bring back memories of the event, such as books or movies
- having a conversation about the traumatic event
How PTSD affects you
Over time, the negative effects of PTSD will accumulate. As your trauma continues to go unprocessed in your body, you’ll find more areas of your life are affected. While flashbacks may initially occur once in a while, it’s possible they’ll increase in strength and severity.
Confronting the root of your trauma is the best way to address them. You can also manage your flashbacks by developing a few habits on your own.
Learn your triggers
Knowing what might trigger a flashback will help you get to a safe place before it takes over. It’s best to avoid triggering places, people, and situations while you’re still healing from your trauma. Knowing your specific triggers also gives you a sense of control over your mind.
Know the signs
Since flashbacks aren’t always brought on by specific triggers, it’s important to know what signs your body and mind give you that one is coming. You can then remove yourself from the situation and get to a safe place.
Acknowledging that you’re having a flashback will also give you power in the moment. By reminding yourself that you’re not really experiencing what you’re feeling, you can keep grounded in reality.
Learning how to bring yourself into your bodily sensations can help pull you out of the chaos of a flashback. Practicing deep breathing will get you to slow your heart rate.
Tuning in to what sounds, sights, and sensations are going on around you will bring you to the present. Try mindfulness techniques when you’re at rest. They’ll be easier to slip into during more intense moments.
Seek trauma-focused therapy
Mindfulness and taking care of yourself sometimes aren’t enough to fully cope with your PTSD flashbacks. There are many therapeutic approaches that specifically target the symptoms and causes of PTSD.
Look for mental health professionals who are trained in cognitive behavior therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or dialectical behavior therapy.
If you are suffering from PTSD flashbacks, please reach out for help.