Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a result of experiencing trauma that your mind can't resolve. Trigger warning: PTSD flashbacks feel real as if the traumatic event that caused the chaos is happening all over again. Veterans are one of the most vulnerable groups to PTSD because of the violence they experience at war. Although, people who are victims of rape and abuse, those who survived a gruesome accident, or folks who witnessed an otherwise horrific event are all susceptible to PTSD. Symptoms may set in right away after the experience, or they may lie dormant until something sets them off or triggers an episode.
It's normal to feel upset and out of sync after something traumatic happens, but if you continue to relive the event month after month and it disrupts your life, you should see a doctor. If you feel like you might hurt yourself or someone else, please don't hesitate to call for help at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255). This number is a 24-hour-a-day help-line where you can to talk to a crisis counselor. Your conversations are private, and there's no charge. You also have the option to chat online at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, offering a branch of support specifically for veterans. If you're in crisis, you also have the right to call 911 or go to an emergency room for evaluation.
PTSD Flashbacks or Re-Experiencing
Invasive, unwelcome memories, thoughts, and reactions are the hallmark of PTSD flashbacks. For example, your brain may transcribe the backfire of a car as gunfire because of combat recollection. Flashbacks feel like nightmares when you're awake and may come to you as real nightmares, making it difficult to get a decent night's sleep. Re-experiencing the trauma leads to avoiding the things that make you think about what happened. You don't want to talk about what you're going through, and you may even avoid anyone who reminds you of it or was there with you.
PTSD flashbacks bring on negative changes in mood and the way you think about yourself and other people. You may feel depressed and hopeless. Memory problems are common, and remembering becomes a trigger that results in negative reactions. It's not surprising that having PTSD flashbacks makes it hard for people to have healthy relationships. Part of dissociation is perceiving an emotional distance from friends and family as well as feeling numb. Fear of PTSD flashbacks likely has you avoiding social activities too.
Dissociative behaviors and hyperarousal symptoms
Admittedly, dissociative behavior is a direct link to PTSD flashbacks. It disrupts our connection to our identity, consciousness, memory, self-awareness, and our experience of our surroundings. Feeling disconnected, losing touch, and blacking out are all symptoms of dissociation. It's a way of coping with trauma but generally happens involuntarily.
Hyperarousal symptoms affect the way a person reacts to any given situation. For example, a person who has PTSD may be more easily frightened and may seem skittish because they feel as though they need to stay on high alert at all times. Another indicator that someone suffers from PTSD flashbacks is self-destructive behavior like drinking and driving or using drugs. They're also likely to get angry and aggressive more easily and have sleep and concentration problems. All of these emotions and behaviors are even more unbearable when combined with the paralyzing guilt and shame that accompanies PTSD flashbacks.
Learn How to Identify Your Triggers
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There are specific things that are triggers for veterans. For example, objects that bring back memories regarding what happened can set off dissociative feelings and flashbacks -- likewise, odors such as diesel fuel or smoke may cause these types of reactions. Other things that might be a trigger are feeling strong emotions, events that spark recollection, or the time of year.
Managing your triggers
Though it's incredibly painful to talk about the experiences that cause PTSD, and we'd rather not think about it, avoiding the pain will only make it harder to control the reaction you have to your triggers. Learning to identify and manage your response is the key to getting better. The first thing to do is to create a list of all the things that you know trigger your memories. Also, keep a journal to note anything new you notice as well as when the PTSD flashback happened, where you were, and who you were with at the time. Details are your friend when you're determining what triggers flashbacks and dissociation.
This article is not medical advice and may be triggering. If you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD, it's important to seek help. PTSD flashbacks are a severe mental health issue that will improve with treatment. If you feel you are in danger of hurting yourself or others and need immediate help call 911.
Learn grounding techniques
The best thing you can do for yourself is to have a plan for those moments when you unexpectedly get triggered. Once you know what your triggers are, you can think about it ahead of time and prepare if you're doing something that will likely set off PTSD flashbacks. Either way, knowing what to do when you feel yourself begin to dissociate will get easier with practice. Think about distracting your senses when you're planning ways to fight back against unwelcomed thoughts and emotions.
The folks from the Wounded Warrior Project offer the following suggestions to help get you grounded. Practice refocusing your attention on something you enjoy like listening to music or playing with your pup. Relaxation exercises are a good way to reduce tension and ease stress; deep breathing and visualization will diminish the power of the fear and panic that comes with PTSD flashbacks. Try challenging your thoughts by taking a closer look at them and reminding yourself that you're reacting to something that happened in the past and it is not happening in the present moment. Once you know how to ride the wave, you'll be able to move through feelings of anxiety, sadness, and anger by reminding yourself that the intense way you are feeling will pass. Lastly, try to stick to a routine. It will make you feel safe and secure as well as provide structure and purpose.
Seek Professional Care for PTSD Flashbacks
Regardless of how much work you do on your own, you need to seek professional help if you believe you're having PTSD flashbacks. Staff Sargent Stacy Pearsall is an example of how treatment can improve your life. She was a photographer in Iraq, and what she saw there left a lasting impact that she must cope with daily. She was diagnosed with PTSD and kept it hidden because she felt alone and ashamed. Once she started opening up in therapy, she was inspired to assist others in seeking help. Therapy not only helped her but influenced her enough to spread the word about the life-saving techniques for people with PTSD. You deserve to feel better too.
Trauma-focused psychotherapies are treatments that target the memory and meaning of a traumatic event. Some approaches use talk therapy, writing, or visualizing the experience. Other treatments work to reframe negative beliefs. There are usually eight or more sessions. One such procedure is known as eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR. It helps you process the memory by recalling the trauma while paying attention to something else like a finger waving from side to side, a light, or a sound. You pay attention to a back-and-forth movement or sound while you remember the trauma. At some point, a shift occurs in the way you feel while you're thinking about the memory, enabling you to process more information. EMDR helps you to scrutinize the trauma in a safe environment and allows the healing to begin.
Prolonged exposure therapy
If you think prolonged exposure therapy sounds difficult, you're right. However, it helps you to gain control of your reactions by facing the overwhelming negative emotions that cause PTSD flashbacks. Once you spend time examining the experience, you'll begin to feel free of its grip.
Exposure therapy encourages you to talk about what happened. It forces you to stop avoiding the feelings that you fear will be too much to take. You work through it all with a trained therapist or psychiatrist who will help you develop coping skills. Reliving the event is painful work to be sure, and it's well worth it for the peace of mind you'll find when you forgive yourself and begin to move forward.
Cognitive processing therapy
Many times, self-blame is a part of PTSD that we aren't aware of, and it has detrimental effects on our mental health. Certainly, the fear is immobilizing, because the world is now a dangerous place. All the unfavorable thoughts that run endlessly through our minds keep us stuck in the grips of PTSD and suck the joy from life. Cognitive processing therapy, or CPT, uses writing to teach you how to evaluate and reframe the troublesome feelings and thoughts that you're plagued with when you experience PTSD flashbacks. By changing your thoughts, you can change how you feel.
Pick the therapy that's right for you
There are quite a few potential therapies for PTSD flashbacks. You and your doctor will determine which works best for your situation. Psychiatrists commonly prescribe anxiety medications such as Zoloft, Paxil, Prozac, and Effexor to treat PTSD flashbacks in addition to therapy. Sometimes the medication helps when you're starting treatment, and you can level off later as you feel more confident in your ability to use your coping skills.
This treatment comparison chart explores the differences between using CPT, EMDR, prolonged exposure therapy, and medication. It offers a breakdown of how they work, how effective the treatment is according to studies, how long you can expect it to last, and what you'll be expected to do, among other things. Additionally, you have the option of individual or group treatment.
Peer support groups
One of the best things you can do for yourself is to reach out. It may also be one of the most difficult things to attempt because trust is a problem when you have PTSD. But it is particularly challenging to trust yourself. Truthfully though, finding ways to reach out is key to your recovery. The Wounded Warrior Project is a peer support network and much more. You will be able to talk with veterans who understand what you're going through because they've been there too.
If you want to volunteer, it's a wonderful way to stay healthy. Nothing rebuilds self-confidence and positivity like helping others. It also gives you back the sense of connection that you lost. The Wounded Warrior Project is an excellent resource for you to get help becoming independent again. They can also set you up with mental health referrals and job searches.
Unfortunately, PTSD affects more than the person who has the diagnosis. It also affects family and friends. They may feel helpless, not knowing what to do for you or how to help. Your family can get support through the Wounded Warrior Project as well. And they will have an opportunity to connect with other families who are going through the same things -- what an outstanding way to recover -- by building your community and support network. This way, everyone wins.
Taking Control When You Have a Flashback
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The thing that caused you trauma is no longer with you, though it sometimes feels tangible. Make sure you have a safety plan for those times something sets off a traumatic memory. If you learn how to manage your triggers, the chances of dissociating and having a full-blown PTSD flashback will dramatically reduce. The first step is to have the courage to face your fears and identify what people, places, or things bring about re-experiencing.
Once you've been actively working to reconcile the suffering, you will become adept at navigating the dissociation, avoidance, and negative behaviors. Which means ultimately, PTSD flashbacks will dissipate and you can get better. This article is not medical advice. Seek professional medical help to get the treatment you need if you are experiencing symptoms of PTSD. Remember you are not alone.