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.