A PTSD flashback is a symptom of PTSD that transports the mind back to a traumatic event. Much like nightmares, PTSD flashbacks are more harrowing than a memory because they can make you feel like you are reliving the event.

Flashbacks can occur without warning and often create the feeling of being disconnected from your body and surroundings. They can be terrifying, but there are strategies you can use to manage and minimize their impact on your life.

Types of PTSD Flashbacks

PTSD flashbacks are not all cut from the same cloth as they can occur in diverse ways, each leaving a distinct mark on the person grappling with them. Recognizing the type of flashback can help you tackle them more effectively. Here are some of the most common types of PTSD flashbacks.

  • Intrusive Memories: Intrusive memories are one of the hallmark symptoms of PTSD. People with PTSD might keep reliving their trauma through intense, unwanted recollections that hit them hard, complete with all the sights, sounds, and feelings from that time. Different things, like sounds or sights, might suddenly bring back those harrowing memories without warning,
  • Nightmares: Many individuals with PTSD experience frequent and distressing nightmares related to the traumatic event. These nightmares lead to poor sleep but also increase dread and anxiety already present from daytime stress. Nightmares may also lead to avoidance of sleep or reluctance to go to bed due to the fear of experiencing them.
  • Flashbacks and Dissociation: Flashbacks involve re-experiencing the traumatic event as if it were happening in the present moment. When this happens, people often feel lost in time, as if the traumatic event is unfolding all over again right before their eyes. Dissociation, on the other hand, involves a feeling of detachment from one’s surroundings or a sense of being disconnected from oneself. Both flashbacks and dissociation can be distressing and disruptive to daily functioning.
  • Emotional and Physiological Triggers: PTSD flashbacks can also be triggered by specific cues in the environment that are reminiscent of the traumatic event. When these reminders hit, they can release a wave of fear and physical reactions like your heart racing, breaking out in a sweat, or even struggling to catch your breath. People might also find themselves constantly on edge, always scanning for potential danger.

How to Cope with PTSD Flashbacks

While a flashback can be unique to the individual experiencing them, there are recognized strategies that can help you mitigate their influence on your life. Here are some of the most popular strategies that people with PTSD use with great success.

Breathe Deep

Emotional symptoms of flashbacks often include fear and stress, which can lead to physiological changes. You may breathe rapidly, experience an increased heart rate, and all your muscles may tense up. These physical symptoms are all tied to the body’s flight or fight reaction.

Rapid breathing often leads to hyperventilation, which can significantly increase your level of distress. While immersed in the flashback, focus your attention on your breathing. Control your breathing by taking slow, deep breaths. Prepare yourself by studying breathing methods. The box breathing method, for example, involves counting to four while inhaling, holding for another four, exhaling for a four-count, and holding for four more before the next cycle.

Practice Grounding Exercises

If you regularly experience flashbacks, learning grounding methods incorporating all five senses may help return you to the present. The 5-4-3-2-1 exercise is a popular method because it’s so effective. It works like this:

Examine your surroundings and pick out five things you can see, four you can touch, three you can hear, two you can smell, and one you can taste.

You may not need to work through all five levels, but how far you get depends on the severity of your flashback and how well you respond to your senses. For example, you could smell some incense, hold ice in your hand, or taste a chili or other strong-tasting food.

Grounding Items

Many people with extreme and frequent flashbacks have success grounding themselves in the present with a grounding object. The object can be anything but small enough to carry everywhere. This way, you will always have a tool to use no matter where a flashback occurs.

The grounding item, or totem, should be meaningful to you. A piece of jewelry, keychain, or any other item with sentimental value will do the job as long as it has some significance in your life.

Move Your Body

Moving your body can form a mind-body connection during a flashback, which will help keep you grounded and focused on the present.

Relax your muscles, working through the different groups by tensing and relaxing each body part. Consider how you are feeling after each section.

Try simple stretching exercises. You aren’t doing an entire Pilates session here, as stretching to reach your toes is enough. Try going for a walk. Start by circling the room you are in or going outside if possible.

Give Yourself Gentle Reminders

Flashbacks can be incredibly overwhelming due to their realistic nature, which creates a sensation of reliving past events. However, it’s crucial to remember that a flashback isn’t reflecting your current reality.

Remember that these recollections are not happening now, and you are not in danger. Affirm to yourself that you’re safe and the hard times are in the past. Surround yourself with trusted friends and loved ones who can help you navigate flashbacks. Developing coping mechanisms you can use during flashbacks will require practice and perseverance.

Sessions with trained therapists can also help you identify your triggers and teach you ways to handle them efficiently. If you would like to learn more about how you can develop coping mechanisms for PTSD flashbacks, get in touch.

At Counseling Arizona, we offer a free consultation to discuss your trauma. Learn how you can heal from your past experiences and find a new sense of freedom and peace. For more information, visit Trauma Treatment.