What Happens During a Flashback?

Two common symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are flashbacks and nightmares of the trauma. What happens during a flashback? Since flashbacks are unique to PTSD, they can be difficult to understand for people who have never experienced them.

Posttraumatic stress disorder is an anxiety disorder that is triggered by experiencing a traumatic event that caused intense fear. Some common causes of posttraumatic stress disorder include violent attacks, witnessing violence happening to someone else, experiences related to war, sexual assaults, sexual abuse, and car accidents.

During a flashback, the person relives the traumatic event as if it is happening again. This is different than just remembering the trauma. What happens during a flashback is that the person gets sucked into the emotionally charged memory of the trauma. The person sees, hears, and sometimes feels the same things they saw, heard, and felt during the traumatic event.

In the beginning of the flashback, the peripheral vision may go black. In the person’s vision, the attack is happening again. While they are seeing the trauma as if they are experiencing it again, they are likely to feel the same intense fear that they felt during the original trauma.

Flashbacks can occur during the day or at night as flashback nightmares. Flashback nightmares cause the person to relive the traumatic event in their dreams. These nightmares are intense and realistic. When people awake from flashback nightmares, it may take some time for them to become aware of their actual surroundings and realize that it was a dream. The nightmare may seem to continue after the person is awake.

It is not uncommon for someone with posttraumatic stress disorder who is having flashback nightmares to develop a fear of sleep. This can lead to insomnia. The person is likely to already have restless sleep due to the nightmares. The psychiatrist may prescribe a sleep medication like Ambien to treat the insomnia and restless sleep.

People with PTSD have high levels of anxiety. The flashbacks and flashback nightmares add to the already elevated levels of anxiety. People may become discouraged during the treatment process if they feel they are making progress then experience a flashback. The flashback may make them feel as though they have lost any progress they have made. It may help to remember that the progress is not extinguished by a flashback.

Healing from PTSD is a gradual process. Even while making good treatment progress, the person may have some flashbacks. With treatment, the flashbacks usually become less frequent.

 

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Comments 27 comments

1st Class Travelr profile image

1st Class Travelr 6 years ago from Jackson, MS

:) I like this hub, but couldn't finish reading it because I was so into it that I began thinking back to when I had a flashback. You are a very smart lady - GREAT HUB!


Sheila Wilson profile image

Sheila Wilson 6 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

Oh, no! I certainly don't want to trigger anyone! But, I do feel that people who do not have PTSD flashbacks really don't understand what it's like. So, I spoke from experience. It sounds like you'd agree with it as being a fairly accurate description.


Annie Hamilton 6 years ago

Oh my God! I went to the hospital because my dr told me to, I had a night episode that was so violent (can't remember the actual happening) but woke up hearing loud noise and feeling terrible pain in my head...noise continued and then I realized it was coming from me, I was screaming. terrible. Have this on a few levels, was violently attacked in 1988 (severely) and as a result have traumatic brain injury, ended up having brain surgery in 2004 (stroke/lesion removal, partially related to event in 1988) and now have white matter disease, memory loss, flashbacks, growth hormone deficiency, smattering of other things but the capper is I somehow suppressed the memory up until 2009 and therapy couldn't 'find it' kept saying "what is it that you're not saying? what are you hiding?" and finally I quit therapy, annoyed as hell - thinking, what, i'm supposed to INVENT things for them to fix? but over the course of time, I got involved in things with friends and (have always been a Researcher) and stumbled onto a study about suicide rates in Soldiers and it broke me - my heart just opened and bled for these wounded men and women who couldn't find it to heal and I understand. in discussions with friends, we decided to undertake the study of PTSD and I reopened a previous door I'd studied years before, stress and the brain, and hormonal impact on psychosocial dysfunction. as things have unfolded over months, the layers have opened and one day I just 'remembered' the attack and it made sense. and it then explained why I reacted (over-reacted) to an accident two years ago that would have killed my son had he not have reacted as quickly as he did. (he was crushed under the weight of a unit of 20 huge lockers and the school system did nothing - the idiots put him on the school bus. we were dumb founded) I literally snapped and went into a state of hyper-stress, agitation, off-the-chart looney tunes. was so angry and worried I had to be protected from myself, from them. was deperate to pull him from that lazy, idiotic school but he wouldn't let me separate him from his friends so I sought trauma counseling and did a lot of crying instead. and now I understand why the reaction was so strong.

The dr came in tonight and said that I likely experienced what he called a violent flashback and might become afraid to sleep (too late, i'm already there) he didn't have to be a complete douche bag about it and i still don't understand what was happening. i was trying to break through some sort of membrane or was standing in a mud puddle or something. it felt like walking through the shallow end of a pool. does this make sense to anyone? the dr @ ucla treated me like i'm nuts.


Sheila Wilson profile image

Sheila Wilson 6 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

Annie, first of all I want to say how great it was of you to turn your research skills to finding answers for the episodes you were experiencing. Yes, I understand what you've gone through. I have woken up from nightmare flashbacks unable to physically move with the flashback continuing after I was awake. If you have not checked out About.com and their PTSD forum, I would suggest that you seek that support. There is a psychiatrist and many people who suffer from PTSD who are excellent listeners and understand what PTSD is like. I hope you can find a therapist who is experienced in helping people with PTSD cope with the symptoms. It took a few years, but my flashbacks have become much less frequent. I also suffered from insomnia because I was afraid of the night flashbacks. Luckily, I found an excellent psychiatrist who is sincere. It may take some trial-and-error to find a good therapist and psychiatrist, but I truly believe that having a psychiatrist and therapist who understand the illness and know how to help the person through it are necessary supports for people with PTSD. Thank you for sharing your story. If you'd like more information on PTSD, feel free to check out my website: PTSDcentral.com


Annie Hamilton 6 years ago

thanks much - I have been working on this from a hormonal end (site is www.annie-hamilton.com ) one of the pages on the site describes the study. (the site is mostly writing and my research work/assignments) I hadn't expected this from a personal end and am shocked. a good friend of mine (who is working on it with us) cautioned against using a counselor who isn't a patient him/herself. and he's right, it would be like taking parenting advice from someone who hasn't had kids. it's a fine line between psychiatry and experience. one has medical advice and the other practical applical application. he's been good for bouncing things off of (and vice versa) and we both have extensive training and are patients but it's not a substitute or physician care and both of us have outside people also.

in this particular study, we're going at it from a different angle: I'm bringing in the hormonal component, hormonal impact on psychosocial dysfunction and they're looking at the VA/systems current diagnostics and where the gaps are.


Maria 6 years ago

I went sledding with some friends last year and hit a large chunk of ice at high speed, which fractured my tailbone. I was in a great deal of pain, sitting in the backseat of the car on the way home, when the car went down a rather steep hill. For just a moment, I had a vivid, terrible flashback - it was exactly like I was careening down that hill again, out of control. I'd never had a flashback before, and it was an unpleasant shock! My brain just utterly recreated the whole thing for a split second.


medusa63 6 years ago

My best friend has severe PTSD. She is here at my home right now because she has just experienced a flashback. She has had many years of physical and sexual abuse dating about 35 years. She was just recently srangled by her husband and is reliving her abuse. The flashbacks last about 2 hours and she is not "present" at all during this time. Her eyes are closed and she is not aware of her surroundings at all. I did not understand PTSD at all until now. I've done some reading about it and this is the second time I have been with her during a flashback. The first time I had to call 911 because I didn't know what to do. She is very important to me and I want her to begin to heal from this horrible experience. I'm glad there are people on the net that can share their experiences with each other. For someone that doesn't go through this, it's very important so I can learn how to help her through these "episodes". Thank you to everyone for listening!


Sheila Wilson profile image

Sheila Wilson 6 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

Thank you for sharing, Medusa. How lucky your friend is to have a friend like you! As someone who has PTSD, I feel horrible whenever I hear about people experiencing PTSD symptoms. I don't know if this will work for your friend or anyone else for that matter, but when I have a flashback, I use positive self-talk by telling myself that it is a flashback and not real. Then I get really close to whatever is nearby. I use my hands to feel if I can't see much because of the flashback. Then I try to concentrate on feeling the object and try to force myself to see the object. This usually helps me bring myself back to reality. Now that my flashbacks are not as severe and not as frequent, this works very well. If your friend can try to start connecting with touch, sound, and seeing what is actually present, she might be able to start learning to pull herself out of the flashbacks. It may take time for her to be able to do this, but her ability to do so should increase with time.

I wish you both well. I just started a facebook page for my PTSDcentral.com website and I invite you both (and of course anyone else touched by PTSD).


bill oneill profile image

bill oneill 6 years ago

Sheila,

In my case, PTSD is ongoing; I've gotten worse over the last four years. It cost me my job with the Marine Corps Museum; that's funny in a way, a former Marine, Vietnam veteran, let go because PTSD interfered with my duties.


Sheila Wilson profile image

Sheila Wilson 6 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

That's horribly sad, bill. I haven't been able to work outside the home since the onset of my PTSD. It's terrible what this condition can rob you of.. and most people who don't have the condition do not understand it at all. I hope things get better for you. We can only hope that an effective treatment emerges.


lambservant profile image

lambservant 6 years ago from Pacific Northwest

Great hub and I really appreciate you telling others about PTSD flashbacks. I have always had difficulty describing them. I first diagnosed with PTSD in 2001. Of course I had all of the above, nightmares, flashbacks, hospital stays galore, therapy, medication. I was highly medicated over the next 7 years and not only was emotionally numb from the PTSD, but my friends and family said I was almost like a zombie. But the flashbacks went away before the end of 2001. Fast forward 7 years and I had a bad trigger for the PTSD, and 2 weeks later lost my precious father. Everything came back, but in a way, this time it worse because I was not numb like I was before, I was not in a dissociative state like I was in 2001, I felt the pain more than the pain of breaking my leg. Two years of darkness. and the worst anxiety I can imagine ensued. Finally I am back in stability mode. But I just want to say to all of you have suffered from PTSD, that I love you and wish you God speed on your journey to recovery and healing.

Medsusa63, if more people suffering from PTSD had friends like you, we would find our healing a little faster. Taking your time and effort to understand your friends illness and find our what you can do to help moves me nearly to tears. May God bless you for it.


lambservant profile image

lambservant 6 years ago from Pacific Northwest

Great hub and I really appreciate you telling others about PTSD flashbacks. I have always had difficulty describing them. I first diagnosed with PTSD in 2001. Of course I had all of the above, nightmares, flashbacks, hospital stays galore, therapy, medication. I was highly medicated over the next 7 years and not only was emotionally numb from the PTSD, but my friends and family said I was almost like a zombie. But the flashbacks went away before the end of 2001. Fast forward 7 years and I had a bad trigger for the PTSD, and 2 weeks later lost my precious father. Everything came back, but in a way, this time it worse because I was not numb like I was before, I was not in a dissociative state like I was in 2001, I felt the pain more than the pain of breaking my leg. Two years of darkness. and the worst anxiety I can imagine ensued. Finally I am back in stability mode. But I just want to say to all of you have suffered from PTSD, that I love you and wish you God speed on your journey to recovery and healing.

Medsusa63, if more people suffering from PTSD had friends like you, we would find our healing a little faster. Taking your time and effort to understand your friends illness and find our what you can do to help moves me nearly to tears. May God bless you for it.


lambservant profile image

lambservant 5 years ago from Pacific Northwest

http://hubpages.com/profile/Dr+Bill+Tollefson

Dr. Tollefson has two excellent articles regarding flashbacks and a new treatment for it, and one on dissociation. Hope it may help someone.


lou 5 years ago

do you faint or just zone out when you have a flash back ?


Sheila Wilson profile image

Sheila Wilson 5 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

Good question, lou. People don't faint during a flashback. It's as if they are not focusing on this world but instead seeing what happened during the trauma and reacting to that. It's almost like daydreaming a nightmare and not being able to easily wake up from it. Also, the person may feel the same feelings or even physical sensations as they did during the trauma.


Jay Almers profile image

Jay Almers 5 years ago from North Carolina

Just found this post and found it very helpful. In the hopes that my experiences may help others, this is my (albeit long) story.

I had a terrible accident while rock climbing on November 02, 2008. I fell 120 feet and during the fall, fractured my skull, blood clot on my brain, destroyed my ankle and wrist, had full-body whiplash among numerous traumas to my head, neck, and body. I have been getting therapy from a CBT, medication is administered by my psychiatrist, and coping mechanisms to the brain damage I received by my neuro-psychologist. PTSD has affected EVERY aspect of my life and I have come close to casting everything/everyone away so that I could have my solitude.

All that being said, things had been getting better. The PTSD seemed to be receding and the symptoms of the brain damage were becoming more clear, something I just have to learn to live with. However, last night I had the worst flashback I have had since about six months after the accident. Full-body, full-sensory flashbacks are the most horrible things I have ever experienced; likely worse than the accident itself.

In addition to the obvious audio/visual manifestations, I also get the physical and smell/taste aspects. My flashbacks cause such tremendous pain in the impact sites to my head and body, as well the whiplash my body went through. I smell blood, I taste blood, I actually have the feeling of blood draining from wounds that no longer exist. When I awake from my flashback, I am disoriented and have a difficult time recognizing my family until my brain finally catches up. Having a 5 year old and 2 year old who don't understand what is happening to their father is very difficult but honestly is the last thing on my mind.

I know this has been a long post, but I feel that there is not enough personal accounts of the different manifestations that this horrible disorder causes.


Sheila Wilson profile image

Sheila Wilson 5 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

Thank you so much for taking the time to share your experience. One thing that I found interesting is that you mention isolating yourself from people and sounds like you did a bit of withdrawing from your usual activities. I have done the same, but I had attributed that to the fact that my PTSD was from a violent assault. I tend to feel angry and afraid of people. It doesn't sound like your accident had to do with other people so I find that interesting. Maybe that's just part of the PTSD that isn't as dependent on the type of trauma as I thought. What do you think?


Jay Almers profile image

Jay Almers 5 years ago from North Carolina

Disassociating is a natural part of PTSD. It is easier to distance yourself from people that have not experienced what you have gone through rather than repeatedly saying "you just don't understand". No one truly understands the mental, emotional and physical things you are experiencing unless they have gone through it themselves. For me, I constantly felt (and sometimes still do) that the people that care about me constantly compare me to the person I was before the accident.

Ultimately what it comes down to is discovering your triggers and learning how to cope with them. There are several treatment options for PTSD including exposure therapy. There is also EMDR therapy which has been proven to drastically improve and possibly cure PTSD by simply reprogramming eye movements when accessing traumatic memories.


Michelle43 5 years ago

As a victim of PTSD, this is great hub....flashbacks can occur anytime, and anyplace, a noise, a smell, anything can trigger flashbacks. I've been coping with PTSD for well over 10 years and I don't think its something that goes away, I've learned how to live with it, but its very challenging at times, some days are ok, some days are downright terrible.....and working in a stressful job definitely doesn't help the situation..I experience anxiety attacks and my job (project manager) doesn't make them easier....I've pretty much excepted this way of life for myself, but I have learned ways to manage my PTSD, exercising is one way, and its been very beneficial.....Great hub, I'll be checking back for more views and stories.


young_mommy89 profile image

young_mommy89 5 years ago from Vermont

I loved this hub! It made me understand my condition much more now and I don't feel so alone(or crazy). It has been almost four years since I was nearly stabbed to death by my ex-boyfriend. I nearly died and had to be airlifted to a hospital for life saving surgery. I can't use knives, can't see blood, and i often still have chest pains, where i was stabbed feeling it all over again. my symtoms may have even worsened over the years, but it is good to know, that this is somewhat normal. I use Melatonin for my insomnia and it is a natural vitamin that works better than a sleeping pill with not so many side affects.


Sheila Wilson profile image

Sheila Wilson 5 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

Thank you for your comment. You are definitely not alone or crazy. Reactions to near-death experiences are different among individuals but there are similarities as well. I'm glad you found something that helps you with insomnia. My sleep cycle is topsy-turvy again. lol I just started Vistaril again. Once I get a handle on it and I'm functioning better, I may try melatonin for maintenance. I've heard good things about it.


anonymous 5 years ago

I have something like the opposite of PTSD - but I suffer traumas quite intensely (I call it "eating" the experience) and I think that it helps avoid later retraumatization. My daughter seems to be the opposite of me in this regard.

It has come to my attention that I am a victim of involutary research and one of the tactics of the monsters behind this has been to "recreate" previous trauma or to try to get me to rethink them via something like associative memory. It mostly fails with me despite the amount of harassment and the types of crimes involved in this experimentation. It's really offensive and I hope they are exposed, prosecuted and receive the death penalty.

In the meanwhile, I have both been trying to understand what they are trying to do as well as what their expected outcome is. I realized at some point that in recreating traumatic events from the past or in trying to reference them via associative "clues" that they are actually trying to induce PTSD. What they have accomplished is inducing the desire to move to a country with stricter/enforced human subjects protections.

Some of this works in the following ways: orchestrating particular circumstances from the past then trying to use visual triggers, names and even more bizarre associative clues to those time periods. This has also included allusions to a drug rape that I suffered at age 20. (That should give some indication of how sick this is.) In addition, there has been the element of terrorizing me on the internet and through various forms of vandalism. This led to hypervigilance at one point but that resolved quickly. Subsequently they attempt to reintroduce elements related to that period of hypervigilance. Before someone thinks I'm nuts, I have to say I have a case at the State Attorney's Office here and have collected evidence of some of the activities. The lack of justice thusfar seems to point to the experimentation theory.

Unlike someone with PTSD, I recognize these fake or orchestrated "intrusions" but they don't signal the original event to me except at a very high level of cognition - that is, the reintroduction of the elements doesn't bring up the original events in an emotive way except where I choose to think about the original feeling. After I saw some of the patterns (I was unaware it was intentional initially) it became patently absurd. Which might prove, people who don't get PTSD won't even if someone is trying really hard. But then again, I didn't volunteer for this horror and I would argue that I suffer at least as much as people with PTSD because I don't have mental defenses to shield myself from the original events.

The other thing is that in the past I tended to process what others see as trauma in a very cognitive way. There were a couple crimes I witnessed that I am fairly certain were fake and part of this. In those instances, the details of what was wrong with the scene were very clear to me, but I still reported one as I actually witnessed it. The jack****es behind this "experiment" tried to make references to one of those crimes but all it did was reveal some of what they were trying to accomplish.

I went to some (apparently) CBT type psychologists. I don't know if that would be useful for someone with real PTSD. For me it was distracting and really offensive... that is, I am not trying to get things out of my mind, I am finding ways to resolve them to the point I am well enough to move somewhere safe. (My idea of safety is different than that in PTSD. I literally will not live in a country that uses people like human trash for involuntary experiments. Nor do I want my child to grow up here.)

I don't know if this helps anyone but seeing the opposite might help explain PTSD a little bit.


sara 4 years ago

I CAN FLASHBACK OF MY PAST I HAD A BAD TIME AT THIS PLACE AND IT BRING BACK THING THAT I DON'T WANT PRESENT I PANIC AND GET STRESS VERY EASYLY SR


Sheila Wilson profile image

Sheila Wilson 4 years ago from Pennsylvania Author

Yes, sara. Flashbacks can be extremely difficult to deal with. I hope you find a good therapist to help you through this. Something that helped me tremendously was to remind myself that the flashbacks can't hurt me. The danger is over and you are safe even though it doesn't feel like it. A therapist can help you find tools to use to cope with the anxiety and stress from the disorder. Positive self-talk, like telling myself I am okay and not in danger, has been the best tool for me. Other tools may work better for you. The therapist should be able to guide you and encourage you to try different tools until you find what works best for you.


rarkangel profile image

rarkangel 4 years ago from nz

Hi - I decided to call my counsellor who I haven't spoken too for quite some time to discuss flashbacks I have been getting which we will talk tomorrow. It was after reading some of the comments on this hub I decided yes call her. I simply googled flashbacks because I had really honestly had enough. I am in tears thinking about it and dreading the next one. I am worried that something is developing in my head for me to still be like this when I have come so far already with recovery from years of child abuse. I am in my 30's and I stopped self-medicating and stopped supressing my memories for about 2year's now. Facing the ugly truths and learning to manage reality without needing to indulge in drugs and alcohol all through a Peer Support Organisation and a wonderful counselor who put me onto them.

I have alot of self-awareness now and learning to be kinder to myself and accept myself etc. It takes something to hurt me for me to go back to old habits as being hard on myself and being erratic.

Since being told about PTSD from my Doctor in 2008, i felt relief. And have worked on my wellness since. On going Peer Support really does help. But it takes sacrifice to take time out from the ticking world from society and focus on your needs and understand recovery and get involved with like minded people in training and go to network meetings in relation to mental health. The organisation in NZ is called Connect Supporting Recovery (Recovering Human Beings).

So because of this move, I am recovering, I am learning, I am healing, I am growing resilience, understanding and forgiving and inspiring hope.

BUT - there is one thing I am stuck with, and that is with these flash backs, and I haven't found a support group yet on PTSD or flash backs. I understand anxiety and we talk a lot about it but not flash backs.

I use to suffer nightmares - re-living the traumatic events, for 19 years I was abused, then I joined the navy thank God really really!

So what I was 19, when you are sheltered and owned and controlled by the abusers you don't know anything else or how to be. Just very fragile, vulnerable, brainwashed, insecure, a puppet for abuse.

Anyway in my 30's my counselor gave me a dreams book. For the life of me I must get the name of it and get back to you. It was so good and have not come across another one as good as it or where it makes sense and aligns with my experiences. Now the counseling and the book really taught me to be in the present and that I can control the dreams. Talking it out and persevering with this really helped. I am in charge of my dreams now and it does not own my day's like it use to.


rarkangel profile image

rarkangel 4 years ago from nz

But the flash backs I haven't learn't how to make those go away and I really have had enough. It is so exhausting. Thing's like in the shower, opening a door, it's worst atw night, in bed before sleep when I close my eye's, on the couch , picking up an object, remote, knife, fork, telling me to destroy my husband, my marriage, and myself. And also I went on camp recently and we went on a bush walk at night to see glow worms, we each had a rock to take to a mediation site and pray into it good things and to put down the bad things in our live's. But as we were walking through the night, these erratic flashbacks would be in my mind telling me to destroy this wonderful moment, I definitely was not at peace, I felt like I was being attacked by something psycho whispering in my mind to destroy the girls I was with, with the rock, and to destory myself. I am so insulted this is within me. How dare it. I am such a great wonderful loving girl who made a vow to be nothing like the violence I was exposed to from my parent's. So much abuse. Are these flashes disturbing me because of my past, even though I don't see images of my parent's, my mind plays some kind of scary flash as if something is going to hurt me. Is this pyschosis. Feed back would be very much appreciated. I am worried and exhausted and maybe something doesn't like me being happy and wants to destroy me?


Tess 3 years ago

Thank you for posting this.

I was sexually molested/abused between the ages of 2-6 by my middle brothers father (although at the time he thought I was his child) my flashbacks and fears or understanding what happened to me was wrong didn't start until I casually told my oldest brothers what (he) does to me. Not thinking it was a bad thing, accepting it as completely normal also.

Once I started speaking to judges lawyers and social services as well as high ranking police officers I started getting flashbacks.

I want to breifly touch upon a subject rarely known about even as the abused person themselves.

That is that some people (including me) found pleasure in the sexual molestation/abuse. As much as this repulsed me of myself (currently still have that filthy feeling inside the pit of my stomach as I speak of this) I want you to know its not your fault! You can't control your own electrical impulses that lead to your brain (especially an innocent child who doesn't know any better)

I'm now 23 years old and still struggle with it. I was diagnosed at 6 years old with PTSD later diagnosed with dissociation in a few different forms but have recently been able to complete treated for that. PTSD is never ending though, eventually I will tackle this too but for now I can't bring myself to do it.

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