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What You Should Know About PTSD Flashbacks

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

The first time it happens can be terrifying: You feel like you’ve gone back in time and are reliving one of the worst moments of your life. Sometimes the memory of past trauma is a just a flash or an intense emotion. At other times, you may feel like you’re there, as if the traumatic event is happening all over again.

• What is PTSD?

If this experience sounds familiar and you have a trauma history, you’re not alone — flashbacks are a common experience, especially when you have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

What Are Flashbacks?

Flashbacks are a mental health symptom that people can experience after a traumatic event, even years later. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), flashbacks are described as an intrusive symptom in response to surviving trauma. Intrusive symptoms are often triggered by experiences that remind you of trauma, even if you’re not aware you were triggered.

Flashbacks are considered a “dissociative reaction,” because they cause you to lose your sense of the present. You may feel or act as if the past traumatic event is happening now. The DSM describes this as occurring on a continuum — flashbacks can be disorienting or, at the far end of the spectrum, cause you to be totally stuck in the past and unaware of the present.

Are Flashbacks a Symptom of PTSD?

Flashbacks are common among people diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s one of the criteria listed in the DSM your mental health provider will use to make a diagnosis. Not everyone with PTSD experiences flashbacks, however. Other intrusive symptoms can include unexpected memories of your trauma and difficult dreams or nightmares.

Other diagnoses that may have flashbacks as a symptom include:

  • Acute stress disorder (if PTSD symptoms have lasted less than six months)

While flashbacks are most strongly associated with PTSD and trauma-related conditions, some researchers have looked at cases where people with other mental health diagnoses experienced flashbacks. One such case study focused on flashbacks in social anxiety disorder, but this research isn’t conclusive.

What Do Flashbacks Feel Like?

Everyone will experience flashbacks differently. Mighty contributor Renee’ Dobbins explained how she experiences flashbacks, which started before she knew she had PTSD:

Suddenly I was 6 years old again: scared, embarrassed, ashamed. It wasn’t just a memory; I actually went back to the incident. I felt all of the feelings, smelled the smells, even heard the TV and the song that was on the radio. It lasted for less than 30 seconds, but it seemed like forever. Flashbacks aren’t always the same as remembering something. They take you back to that place — to those sounds, sights and smells.

Mighty contributor Marie Shanley has also experienced flashbacks. She explained what it feels like to be confused about your sense of time during and after a flashback. It’s hard to distinguish between past and present:

Flashbacks cause me to be unsure of where I am on my timeline. Am I really at the park? Am I really on the couch or walking into a store? It’s like that moment in a dream, where you realize you are asleep and you are figuring out how to wake up, except you think there’s a chance you’re already awake. I have to reassess in order to come back to the present.

Where to Learn More About Flashbacks

To learn more about what it’s like to experience flashbacks, take a look at these Mighty stories from people who have been there. And if you want to share your experience with others who get it, post a Thought on The Mighty. Here’s how.

Other Symptoms of PTSD

If you live with PTSD, you know the condition is more than just flashbacks. Here are some of the other common symptoms.

Header image via pawel szvmanski on Unsplash

Originally published: December 1, 2020
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