Imagine having a nightmare while you are awake. This is a hint of what a PTSD flashback feels like. PTSD is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition typically caused by experiencing at least one traumatic event. It’s often associated with soldiers, but PTSD often arises from abuse, physical illness, being victimized by a crime, and many other reasons. Regardless of the cause, flashbacks are a hallmark symptom of PTSD.
A person has endured a hellish experience that resulted in trauma. Unless and until that trauma is processed and resolved, the probability of vivid, chronic flashbacks is present.
What Are PTSD Flashbacks?
Because painful memories can be stored in your brain dysfunctionally, you may be easily triggered to relive a part of or all of what traumatized you. It’s like you’re in the present, but part of you still lives in the past. Of course, the specifics are different for each person, but here are a few ways a flashback will commonly manifest:
- Seeing it all play out like you’re watching a video
- Experiencing only partial images from the event
- Strong sensory memories (sound, taste, smell, etc.) that your brain connects to the trauma
- Reliving the physical and/or emotional sensations you felt during the original experience
The triggers, intensity, and duration of a flashback will vary from person to person — and sometimes, from flashback to flashback. But whether it lasts for a few seconds or minutes, the feeling of reliving a horrific episode is enough to keep someone with PTSD in a state of constant fear and high alert.
What Triggers a PTSD Flashback?
Again, there are universal trends, but a therapist working with a trauma survivor will know that triggers can be very personal. A flashback may feel randomly triggered or it could be the result of external stimuli like any of the following:
- Being in the geographical area where the event took place
- Witnessing a fictional portrayal (TV, movie, book, news report, etc.) of a similar experience
- Encountering someone who reminds you of the people involved
- A specific day, holiday, or anniversary
Getting to know your particular triggers is invaluable when working with a therapist to recover from PTSD.
Your Brain and Flashbacks
One part of your brain — the amygdala — is designed to keep track of negative memories. It does this to protect you from similar situations in the future. Another part — the hippocampus — is there to add context to the negative memories. This can help prevent you from regularly living in fear.
When you experience trauma, the amygdala-hippocampus connection can be damaged. You may no longer be able to recognize whether a threat is real or imagined. Your amygdala may grow in size and influence — getting you stuck in the fight-or-flight response. This is why your brain can perceive potential trauma simply from a smell or sound. The result is often a harrowing flashback.
How to Deal With PTSD Flashbacks
There are self-help steps you can take, e.g.:
- Grounding techniques
- Monitor your triggers and reactions
- Reach out to friends and family members for support
- Practice daily self-care
The above tactics are absolutely essential complements to your treatment. But yes, you will need to work with an experienced professional. PTSD is a diagnosable condition for which many treatment options exist. PTSD treatment does much more than focus on flashbacks. As disorienting as they are, flashbacks are just one component of the problem.
Committing to therapy positions you to get to the root of the issue. From there, you can do the vital work of fully processing the trauma until you feel it is resolved. With help, you can heal and thrive once again. Reach out to me to learn more about how trauma therapy can help you heal.