What Are PTSD Flashbacks and How To Cope

PTSD Flashbacks

Think of ten people that you know in your life. They can be friends, co-workers, or loved ones. At least one person in this group of eleven, including yourself, could be suffering from PTSD. The most debilitating side effect of PTSD is the flashbacks most associated with it.

If you or a loved one struggles with PTSD flashbacks, we hope that our guide will help you better understand why they happen and how you can cope with them.

What Are PTSD Flashbacks?

Flashbacks, in a narrative context, involve returning to a memory that a character has experienced before. PTSD flashbacks involve the same concept, but on a much more visceral level.

When in the midst of a PTSD flashback, you or a loved one will experience the traumatic event as if it were happening anew. You may lose all connection with the present, or you may still be aware of your surroundings. Either way, your body will react as it did during the traumatic event.

Common Symptoms of PTSD Flashbacks

Understanding what PTSD flashbacks look like in yourself and others can make it easier for those around you to understand what you’re going through and help you return to the present. Some common external symptoms of a PTSD episode may include:

  • Freezing, becoming non-responsive to present stimuli
  • Reacting inappropriately to external stimuli (i.e. hitting the deck in response to a pot banging or a firework)
  • Mouthing or saying words that make little sense in the present context
  • Reacting with the same emotions present during the trauma (i.e. rage, fear, etc.)

To an outside observer, these symptoms may seem unwarranted. But to the person in the midst of the flashback, these actions are perfectly reasonable responses to an ongoing traumatic event.

What Can Trigger a Flashback?

Having PTSD flashbacks is an anxiety-inducing experience, so it makes sense to avoid your triggers as much as possible. Some common triggers for flashbacks in PTSD sufferers include:

  • Sounds: Often seen in combat veterans, any sound resembling one present during the trauma can trigger it
  • People: If someone sees a person present during their trauma, it can cause them to regress
  • Situations: Sometimes, a situation that reminds the PTSD sufferer of their trauma, like driving in rain after a car accident, can trigger a flashback
  • Vicarious Trauma: Seeing your trauma repeated in a movie or on the news can lead to a flashback

It’s plain to see that pretty much any stimulus can be a PTSD trigger if the associated trauma is severe enough. This is why it’s important to know and discuss what people’s triggers are before you do something that could potentially lead to flashbacks.

How to Cope With Flashbacks

Coping with flashbacks can be difficult. However, a good suite of coping techniques should be part of any PTSD treatment plan. Some of the best ways that you or any PTSD sufferer can cope with their flashbacks may include:

Recognizing the Early Signs of an Episode

As the saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Whether it’s panic attacks or PTSD flashbacks, sufferers often feel their surroundings going fuzzy before the episode. They may start feeling disconnected or find their body locking up. 

By recognizing the common symptoms just before an episode, PTSD sufferers have a better chance to excuse themselves from triggering circumstances. 

Understand Grounding Techniques

Grounding techniques are an exceptional, evidence-based treatment for PTSD flashbacks and other related symptoms. Grounding is the practice of using your five senses to ‘ground’ you in the present moment.

One of the most common grounding techniques is the countdown or ‘5-4-3-2-1’ technique. In it, you first identify five things that you can see right now. Then, four things you can touch. Then, three things you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste.

By using all of your senses to return to the present, you can pull yourself from the clutches of the flashback. If it’s not you, but someone else who’s suffering the episode, try to guide them gently through the technique mentioned above.

Enlist Supportive Friends

Piggy-backing off of the above suggestion, having friends or family who know your symptoms and triggers around can be helpful. If you know you’re walking into potentially triggering territory, it would be a wise idea to have a friend or family member at your side, should a flashback begin. The consequences of not having an advocate at your side could prove severe.

Seeking Treatment for PTSD

PTSD is a complicated mental illness to treat, but treatment and recovery are possible. If you or a loved one suffer from PTSD, you can find help in any number of ways, including:

Speaking to a Counselor

One of the best ways that you can receive treatment for PTSD is to speak with a licensed, professional counselor. For best results, you should search for a counselor with a background in trauma recovery. This will help you better address the root cause of your symptoms.

Treatment With Medication

You might be wondering, “What is the best medication for PTSD?” This is not an easy question to answer. PTSD has a cocktail of symptoms that may require different medications to deal with. Many doctors will prescribe antidepressants, SSRIs, or anti-anxiety drugs to make your symptoms easier to manage.

Exposure or Processing Therapy

These types of therapy should only be undertaken in the hands of a skilled, licensed professional. In exposure therapy, you will be exposed to things that remind you of your trauma in small, controlled doses. This will allow you to start approaching things you once avoided due to your PTSD.

Processing therapy has you sitting with a therapist to write out your trauma and find new ways to reframe and process it that are easier to handle.

You Don’t Have to Suffer PTSD Alone

Dealing with PTSD flashbacks can be a stressful ordeal, but you don’t have to suffer alone. Reach out to the Mental Health Center of San Diego today for help with your or a loved one’s symptoms. We’ll be glad to assist you.

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