What Are PTSD Flashbacks?

A flashback is a sudden powerful memory that reminds you of something that happened in the past, either good or bad. But for people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), flashbacks can be a scary and overwhelming experience.

What is PTSD?

PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, is an anxiety disorder that can develop after someone experiences or witnesses a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a car accident, physical violence, or childhood abuse.

Although PTSD is more common in women, it can happen to anyone regardless of age, gender, or social background. It is estimated that nearly 8 million adults in the US live with PTSD.

PTSD Flashbacks

One of the most prominent signs of PTSD is re-experiencing the traumatic event(s) through flashbacks. In the context of PTSD, a flashback is a sudden, intrusive, and often distressing recollection of past trauma, often accompanied by intense emotional and physical responses.

Flashbacks can happen at any time without warning. They can be triggered by anything that reminds a person of their trauma, including something seemingly innocuous as a sound or smell. For example, the screeching of tires in a movie may trigger flashbacks for someone who has been in a car accident.

How Do PTSD Flashbacks Feel Like?

PTSD flashbacks can be so realistic that a person may feel like they are living through the traumatic event again. They are unable to differentiate between what is happening in the present moment and what happened in the past – leading to feelings of fear, terror, and helplessness.

PTSD flashbacks can also trigger physical reactions such as:

  • Heart palpitations
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Shortness of breath
  • A feeling of choking
  • Chest pain
  • Nausea or stomach cramps
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Startle reactions
  • Panic attacks

Coping PTSD Flashbacks

Summoning the courage and energy to calm yourself when feeling overwhelmed by a PTSD flashback can be difficult. However, there are some things you can do to ground yourself in the present moment and ease your symptoms:

Breathe: When you’re scared, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. This can make you feel even more panicked. Try to focus on taking slow, deep breaths, counting to four as you inhale, holding your breath for a moment, and then counting to four as you exhale. This brings a sense of calm and control.

Move your body: Sometimes, the fastest way to stop a flashback is to physically move your body. Go for a walk, run, or do some light exercises. These activities will help refocus your attention on the present moment.

Practice relaxation techniques: Techniques such as progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, and mindful meditation can help ease your symptoms by promoting overall body relaxation.

Positive self-talk: Engaging in positive self-talk can help reframe your thinking, ease anxiety, and calm your mind and body. Use phrases like “I’m safe,” “I can get through this,” or “I am in control.”

Seek treatment: If your PTSD flashbacks are becoming frequent or impacting your quality of life, it’s vital to seek professional help. A trained mental health expert can help you develop healthy and effective coping mechanisms for dealing with PTSD symptoms. There are also plenty of proven PTSD treatments that can help you manage PTSD flashbacks and other symptoms.  

Final Thoughts

PTSD flashbacks can be frightening and overwhelming. But there are things you can do to ease your symptoms. If you’re struggling to cope with PTSD, don’t hesitate to seek professional help. Treatment can make a big difference in your symptoms and overall quality of life.