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What PTSD Flashbacks Feel Like for Me

A flashback trigger

A flashback trigger

What Is a Flashback?

According to Mind.org.uk

"A flashback is a vivid experience in which you relive some aspects of a traumatic event or feel as if it is happening right now. This can sometimes be like watching a video of what happened, but flashbacks do not necessarily involve seeing images, or reliving events from start to finish."

Why I Have Flashbacks and My Experience

I suffer from complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) with flashbacks.

Flashbacks have affected my mental health all my life as they can happen out of the blue, anytime and anywhere, and they are painful experiences to endure. During a flashback, I feel like I'm reliving the past horrific event as if it's happening right now. What follows are my experiences of flashbacks that seemed to come out of nowhere and when I was least expecting them.

I was listening to music and peeling vegetables for a stew I was planning to cook when all hell broke loose.

I had my earphones on high volume to drown out the sound of the internal chatter and thoughts that threatened to overwhelm me, and I was aware of the tension in my body as the negative thoughts and memories bombarded my mind.

My stomach was in knots, my throat was tight, and my jaw was tense, which were signs of my internal distress and a warning that I was becoming overwhelmed by my intrusive thoughts. I felt anger and rage surging through my body, and I tried to ignore what was happening to me and continued to peel vegetables and listen to music.

Even with music blasting in my ears, the power of my fearful thoughts overwhelmed me and led to an overwhelming and crippling impact on my emotions, resulting in a mental breakdown on the kitchen floor. The cause of such a reaction was thoughts and images of a traumatic time in the past—a flashback.

The Flashback Experience

Suddenly, I snapped! I grabbed the pan of sizzling onions I was cooking and repeatedly slammed it onto the stove with a lot of force. Next, I hit the cupboard door in the kitchen over and over with my fist and then started kicking the door until my legs gave way from the force of exertion.

With my legs like jelly, I dropped to my knees and continued pounding the floor with my fist. I could hear myself screaming and crying, and I'd lost my grip on reality.

And then, out of nowhere, I felt my son wrap his loving arms around me as he pulled me close to him and held me tight. I heard his voice as he clenched me tightly. 'It's okay, Mum,' he said, as I fell into his arms crying, breathless and clinging to him.

I held onto my son, shaking and crying until I had an abreaction, which is reliving the past traumatic event as if it were happening now. I allowed myself to feel the emotion of fear and distress of the past trauma and verbalise the emotions I felt, which then released my deep repressed emotions.

With the support of my son, I worked through the experience, and within minutes of the frightening incident, I continued preparing the meal, feeling calmer and more in control of my distress and internal negative chatter.

My flashback came about through intrusive thoughts, images, feelings, and memories involuntarily invading the inside of my head and body. Thoughts flooded my mind until I felt out of control with painful memories and emotions. I didn't want to have these memories, but I couldn't prevent them from coming into my consciousness.

My Flashback Trigger

The reason for this recent flashback was intrusive thoughts that triggered a memory from the past. Also, before listening to music and trying to drown out my thoughts, instead of taking control of them, I had been worrying about things I couldn't control or change. Even though I've learned to be more aware of my thoughts and emotions and how negative thoughts can be a trigger, sometimes I can still get caught up in a loop of negativity.

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Thoughts are the reason for feelings and emotions, and I know that changing my thought will change my emotion. However, especially during stressful times, I am not as aware of my thoughts as I could be.

On another occasion, the trigger was the thoughts and memories of being betrayed by someone I loved. I was in the house alone, washing dishes and slamming the pots onto the drainer in frustration. I felt like I was in a full-blown heated argument with someone, but it was all in my imagination. By the time I was aware of what was going on in my mind, I was breathless with rage, and my heart was pounding as I gripped the sink in anger and temper.

Once I became aware of what was happening inside my head, I held onto the sink and shouted, 'STOP!' By doing this, I brought myself back to the here and now and realized that I was alone in the house, not arguing with anyone. The only argument I was having was an imaginary one inside my head.

Types of Flashbacks

Visual flashbacks are where the traumatic events of the past come as pictures and images, like a video playing as if you are back, reliving events of the past and feeling like it's happening now.

Somatic flashbacks are when sensations and feelings of pain, discomfort, and tension occur in the body due to physically re-experiencing the past traumatic event.

Emotional flashbacks are when you feel intense emotions of panic, anger, fear, shame, or despair brought about by a trigger that takes you back emotionally to a past traumatic event.

a-ptsd-flashback

Triggers of Flashbacks

Many things can trigger a flashback, and triggers can include a reminder of the event, a smell, a sensory sensation, or a conversation about something that reminds you of the traumatic event.

Triggers of flashbacks can also include an emotional memory, an image, or a particular sound. Watching a film or program that reminds you of the event, a person who reminds you of the traumatic time, or music that triggers an emotional memory are just a few of the triggers of a flashback.

Not all intrusive memories of a traumatic event develop into a full-blown flashback with such intensity that we lose touch with reality and that it feels as if we are back at the time of the initial trauma.

I have vivid visual images and memories that intrude involuntarily into my consciousness, which are distressing memories. I am learning to be more aware of my negative thoughts and have learned to manage most intrusive memories and full-blown flashbacks are reducing.

a-ptsd-flashback

How to Manage Flashbacks

If you suffer from flashbacks from past traumatic events, there are ways of reducing the number of flashbacks you experience. If you suspect or feel you are prone to flashbacks, having a plan to lower the distress felt during a flashback is crucial.

Anyone experiencing flashbacks can take control of their life and not be a slave to their triggers and past trauma. If you can understand your triggers of past trauma, you can learn to change your life for the better.

First, you need to identify what your triggers are. By identifying personal triggers, you can understand the negative feelings of trauma that seem to come from nowhere.

If something has triggered you, try shouting out, 'Stop!' Remind yourself that you are having a flashback, which is a normal response to a traumatic event from the past.

Talk to yourself and soothe the inner child. Tell your inner child that everything is okay. Tell your inner child that you are experiencing a terrible memory and are not in danger.

Stamp your feet on the floor and move around to ground yourself in the here and now. Remind yourself that it is a memory and is not reality.

Open your eyes and try to name three solid objects. Touch the objects and let yourself feel the texture of what you are touching.

When to Seek Help

I have shared my personal story of two flashbacks in the hopes that what I have written will help someone.

If you are experiencing any of the symptoms I have written about, please seek help from a therapist or a trusted friend.

Remember, it's perfectly normal to have flashbacks after experiencing a trauma in the past, and it does not mean that you are crazy.

Flashbacks can feel like terrifying experiences, but they're horrific memories, not reality. Hang onto that and tell yourself it's not reality the next time you feel like something has triggered a flashback in you.

Resources

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

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