A PTSD flashback is a type of intrusive thought that often occurs in PTSD. It is a memory from a trauma that makes you feel like you are right back in the past. Simply put, when you are having flashbacks, you feel and act as if the past traumatic experience is happening again. You may panic, feel out of breath, be awaken from sleep, or feel like you’ve lost control.
Flashback is a normal response to trauma and doesn’t necessarily mean that you have posttraumatic stress disorder. In PTSD, a flashback is a dissociative reaction—time and reality are suspended in a brief or extended period of time. You confuse the past and the present, thinking that you are actually somewhere reliving the trauma. Other terms related to dissociation:
Depersonalization — the feeling of being detached or being outside your body, as if you are in a dream observing yourself.
Derealization — an altered sense of awareness and a feeling of unreality. The world may seem unreal, artificial, or lifeless. You may feel as if you are inside a bubble or a dream.
What PTSD flashbacks feel like?
“Many call it the 1000-yard stare and can’t realize the pain when PTSD takes us there.” ― Stanley Victor Paskavich
The people around you may mistakenly believe that a flashback is “all in your head.” What they don’t understand is that you see, hear, and feel the whole experience even though it isn’t real. You are not just thinking it; you are reliving it. You smell burnt gun powder and blood. Your palms are sweating and your heart is beating fast. You can hear people screaming, water splashing, or the voice of your attacker.
Trauma alters the way the mind remembers an event. When trauma happens, amygdala―the part of the brain that controls emotions―increases the fear response and encode certain items in the memory as triggers. On the other hand, the hippocampus that is involved in storing new memories is downregulated unable to integrate these items in the memory.
Normal memories are processed and integrated from thalamus and amygdala to the frontal lobe; as well as from the right side of the brain to the left side. This process is interrupted in trauma; integration does not occur and the memory is left suspended in time because the brain can’t seem to make any sense out of it.
Dealing with Flashbacks and Dissociation
Defuse Flashback Through Journaling
Write down what you, hear, and feel during flashbacks. Recall what situations have made you feel the same. How are they similar to each other? How is your current situation different from the past event? How are the people around you differ from the ones involved in your trauma? This activity will give you an awareness of your current situation and how your life has improved since your traumatic experience. It removes you in the past so that you will be reminded that you are now in a safe place. However, if you truly are unsafe, it’s important that you protect yourself and ask for help.
Change Negative Thoughts to Positive
Another way to deal with a flashback is to change the negative thoughts in your head into more positive thoughts through self-dialogue. When your mind says, “I couldn’t get rid of this flashback; I will never get better” ―tell yourself, “The past is now behind me. I did my best to (help the people I love/protect myself) during the (traumatic event). I survived a horrible experience. I am strong and I can get through this.”
Realize the Importance of a Good Sleep
Sometimes flashbacks come in a form of nightmares. Up to 90% of PTSD sufferers have some level of sleep difficulty on any given night. You can ask your therapists for over the counter meds or prescription sleep aids. But it’s better to create a normal sleep pattern naturally. Some people use essential oil, herbs (melatonin), and other alternative treatments to help them sleep. Others experienced improved sleep and memory regulation using cannabis products (cannabinoids). Yoga and cognitive behavioral therapy have also been shown to help PTSD-related insomnia. Here are some basic guidelines that promote sound sleep:
- Avoid daytime naps
- Avoid caffeinated drinks, especially at night
- Take a warm bath before bedtime
- Exercise regularly before sunset
- Always sleep and wake around the same time each day
- Keep your sleep environment comfortable, safe, dark, and quiet
Visualize your safe space
Create a safe place in your mind and visualize it when you are having flashbacks. You may use a symbol, an object, or a phrase to help you return to your safe space. You can make an audio recording or choose any type of music that you enjoy in order to create a pleasant visualization. But before you can visualize your safe space you need to have a physical location of that place; it could be in your home or another private location. Bring things that exude good energy. You can put your favorite things in that place (books, journal, magazine clippings, plants, etc.). Every time you are in distress, use that phrase or object related to your safe place and draw strength from it.