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How to Cope with PTSD Flashbacks

Flashbacks are frequently experienced by individuals with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Coping with flashbacks can be challenging for those affected, as these episodes are triggered by reminders of the traumatic event they endured.

Flashbacks can have a profound impact and are difficult to anticipate. This is especially true when triggers are unknown to the person experiencing them. Nonetheless, there are strategies one can employ to effectively manage and minimize the occurrence of flashbacks and dissociation, allowing them to remain focused on the present.

What is a PTSD flashback?

A PTSD flashback refers to the intense reliving of a previous traumatic event. These episodes often arise abruptly and without warning. Although not all individuals diagnosed with PTSD encounter flashbacks, they are a frequently encountered symptom. Flashbacks are classified as intrusive symptoms within the realm of PTSD.

What happens during a PTSD flashback?

During a flashback, the traumatic incident can feel as if it’s happening all over again, encompassing not only memories but also the emotional and physical sensations experienced during the initial trauma. For instance, in the case of sexual maltreatment, the presence of the perpetrator may be felt as if they were physically present.

When experiencing a flashback, you might: 

  • Witness complete or partial images of the traumatic incident.
  • Hear sounds or words associated with the event.
  • Encounter physical sensations, such as pain or the sensation of being touched.
  • Encounter the same emotions or bodily reactions, such as sweating or a rapid heartbeat.
  • Feel bewildered and unsure about what is transpiring during the flashback.

For some individuals, PTSD flashbacks can manifest as a form of dissociation, where there is a sense of disconnection from thoughts, emotions, memories, or identities. It might feel as if you’re observing the situation from a detached perspective, as if you were in a movie, or without any recognition of your actual surroundings.

Not every flashback involves a complete re-experiencing of the traumatic event from start to finish. Sometimes, only certain aspects of the event are relived, while other times, only emotions or physical sensations are present. The duration of a PTSD flashback can range from a few seconds to several hours.

What triggers PTSD flashbacks?

PTSD flashbacks may appear to happen unexpectedly and without a clear reason. However, they can be activated by individuals or circumstances that remind you of the traumatic event. It is possible that you may not immediately recognize a situation as a trigger for your PTSD.

Here are some examples of triggers that can initiate a PTSD flashback: 

  • Encountering someone who resembles or brings to mind the person who caused the trauma.
  • Passing by the location where the traumatic incident took place, whether by driving or walking.
  • Watching a television program that evokes memories of the event.
  • Engaging in a conversation that brings up recollections of the incident
  • Reading specific types of books or listening to particular genres of music.

Flashback triggers vary from person to person, as they are unique to each individual. It is crucial to make an effort to understand your triggers so that you can develop effective coping strategies. However, keep in mind that identifying the precise causes of your flashbacks may not always be possible.

How to cope with PTSD flashbacks

Experiencing flashbacks can be an overwhelming and disorienting ordeal. When possible, employing coping techniques to manage distress during or after a flashback can be beneficial. The following self-care suggestions may provide assistance:

Practice deep breathing.

The body’s instinctual response to perceived threats during a flashback includes a rapid heartbeat and shallow breathing. By deliberately focusing on deep, slow breaths, you can counteract the tendency to panic. Essentially, you are reassuring your body that everything is alright.

Grab an anchor object.

Keep an item that serves as a reminder of the present moment within easy reach. It could be something small, like a piece of jewelry, a coin, or any other personal object. During a flashback, looking at or touching this item can help anchor you to the present and provide a sense of context when the situation becomes confusing.

Create a mantra.

Formulating a word or phrase to repeat to yourself can serve as a reminder that you are safe and that the intensity of the moment will eventually subside. This simple yet powerful technique can help navigate through a flashback.

Recognize the triggers.

Attempt to be mindful of the triggers that precede a flashback, the moment you recognize its onset, and any other pertinent details that could aid in identifying your specific triggers. This information can be valuable for learning how to effectively cope with PTSD flashbacks in the future.

Long-Term Treatments

Similar to various common mental disorders like anxiety, depression, and bipolar disorder, the treatment of PTSD typically involves a combination of oral treatment, therapy, or both.

Antidepressants are frequently prescribed to address the psychological symptoms of PTSD. Additionally, specific oral treatments targeting physical symptoms or alleviating other effects of PTSD may be recommended.

Healthcare professionals utilize various psychotherapy techniques to assist individuals with PTSD. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) aids in identifying and rectifying distorted connections between thoughts, emotions, and resulting behaviors. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), a treatment involving discussions about trauma while following stimulating eye movements, has shown effectiveness in reducing the intensity of associated memories.

If you are considering therapy, visit Mindshift Psychological Services. Learn more about their treatment programs on their website. You may contact them at (714) 584-9700 to schedule an appointment.

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