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What Is The Differences Between PTSD related Flashbacks and Nightmares?

Updated on March 26, 2019
repoprimo profile image

As a 30+ year complex PTSD survivor, I have dealt with many sides of PTSD in adult life.

Somewhere Out There

What Is The Difference In PTSD Related Flashbacks And Nightmares?

Well not much in one sense and yet as they may be similar they are different in that Flashbacks are sort of enhanced nightmares that occur during normally waking hours; while Nightmares usually happen during sleep or taking naps.

Now that seems simple enough; But it really goes beyond that, in my opinion. You see nightmares usually are triggered by something that may occur during my sleeping hours. There is no real sense of real time, during a nightmare. You might have a nightmare that in reality only lasts a minute or two, but while you are in the nightmare, it seems like a longer period of time because it happens during your sleeping time of the day.

Although it may be true that leaving a television on, or an odor finding it’s way into your bedroom, may trigger a dream or nightmare and even though a nightmare can wake you up; which is a coping mechanism within the Fight or flight response. That is that your brain will retreat from the nightmare, and wake you up, to “Save” you from being harmed and to allow you to come back to the present is it’s only escape.

A nightmare may be triggered, because of some episode of a dream, might have triggered the memories of a traumatic event in parts, and then your imagination will take over and carry on the dream and nightmare until that triggers a “flight or flight” response; hence you get abruptly stirred and awaken by the nightmare.


Flashbacks and Nightmares

Flashbacks And Nightmares: Dealing With Your Traumatic Past To Reclaim Freedom In Your Future
Flashbacks And Nightmares: Dealing With Your Traumatic Past To Reclaim Freedom In Your Future
This is a tool I use regulary, to read and help me understand my fight with Nightmares and Flashbacks. It is packed with tools and methods for working through the times when you feel like Flashbacks and Nightmares are taking too much away from the quality of life. I hope you enjoy it. Click on the link and you will be directed to Amazon to purchase the book, and read reviews on it. I fully enjoy this book and it gives me an understanding of what is happening. I hope you find it as enjoyable and informative as I did.
 

When Do Flashbacks Occur?

A Flash back usually happens when you are awake and not sleeping. It is like a Nightmare, but you are taken from a normally waken state because of a present trigger, bringing back a memory (Even a small inconsequential memory can trigger a Flashback), and all of the senses that you experienced during a given traumatic event. Your mind takes you back to re-experience the event, so that you can deal with the threat, like you did when you survived the initial Traumatic event.


Have you ever watched a comedy where someone was depicting an immersed audience participation, virtual reality movie, and the patrons are being slapped, having water sprayed on them to mimic rain, or thrown on them to mimic a fight on screen, where a person throws hot coffee or iced drink on another person? Well, that is similar to what and where the Flashbacks takes sufferers of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

PTSD sufferers who experience Flashbacks, experience them Much like playing a movie and piping in all of the smells, tastes, temperatures of the space, the weather, a conversation or song, to name a few things, that brings back the memory in its entirety. Most people get locked into the memory, to deal with anxiety, or stressors, that they find them selves out in the real world. Now I know that it seems like I just repeated myself, but I did it on purpose to illustrate and pound home how severe it can be for the sufferer who experiences these episodes.

Can FlashBacks and Nightmares occur at the same time? Well, from my personal experiences, as a sufferer of C-PTSD, I have had dreams that evolved into nightmares where my traumatic event was depicted and my imagination ran with the scenario and intensified it to a point that I was awaken in sheer terror; which then triggered a flashback where I was now fighting attackers that were a part of one of my traumatic events.

The results of that, was a few days fixing holes in the walls of my apartment, and replacing a lot of furniture that got thrown and broken; because I thought I was fighting several assailants who were assaulting me. During this time, I was smelling the blood that I smelt during the original event, My face and arms and back were hurting me, my ears were ringing and my heart was pounding out of my chest. Somehow I found the where-with-all to call the Veterans Crisis hot line and the operator was able to talk me down and to reassure me that I was okay and not being assaulted again.

So, In my experiences I have had many times where I have been awaken by a Nightmare/Night-terrors, and fell right into an Episode of Flashbacks of one sort or another. Yes, both Nightmares/Terrors and Flashbacks can happen together, but usually It’s a one nightmare that wakes me up then I am taken to the Flashback episode; but I have never seen or heard of them happening at the same time.

Now typically after I go through one of these “Back to Back” episodes, I will also experience Loss of time whereby I lose huge chunks of time and just mentally disappear. I have been known to be observed seemingly fully functional if I am doing a repetitive task; But in my own self I am not aware of what is going on around me and I have no recall of what may have happened during that time.

Losing Time after a Flashback

I recall barbecuing for a group of friends at my home one weekend. During this time, I burned my arm a little bit and went into a flashback, at which time I was idle and just staring at the Barbecue pit; no one was to the wiser that I was having an episode. Somehow, I was able to go past the Flashback and lost the whole rest of the day in time. Now, I know this sounds crazy, and it was for me, when I found out that I burnt my other arm, burnt off my eyebrow hair on over my left eye, and still was able to pull the meat off and put it on the table.

Okay, I was told that my Nephew had to prompt me to do these added tasks, but I did not recall any part of the episode, until I went to the hospital with 3rd degree burns to my arm, and flash burn to my face. The only way I am able to tell you about what happened, is because my Nephew filled in the gaps of time during his laughter while I was getting patched up at the hospital. So, I did not serve the dinner on my own, but with my nephew’s prompting, and assistance, I got it done somehow! But to also note I underwent an extensive grilling by my therapists, and the VA when I showed up for my appointments with patches on my arms.

In other more frequent episodes of losing time, I have been known to be walking down a sidewalk, near a busy street with friends and just walk out into traffic, with no memory of what happened. Thank goodness I was with someone who was able to steer me back to the sidewalk without being hit. But I have been hit once or twice when I was on my own (Not to worry, I now have a service dog to keep me on the sidewalks when I am alone).

Losing Time after a Flashback

I recall barbecuing for a group of friends at my home one weekend. During this time, I burned my arm a little bit and went into a flashback, at which time I was idle and just staring at the Barbecue pit; no one was to the wiser that I was having an episode. Somehow, I was able to go past the Flashback and lost the whole rest of the day in time. Now, I know this sounds crazy, and it was for me, when I found out that I burnt my other arm, burnt off my eyebrow hair on over my left eye, and still was able to pull the meat off and put it on the table.

Okay, I was told that my Nephew had to prompt me to do these added tasks, but I did not recall any part of the episode, until I went to the hospital with 3rd degree burns to my arm, and flash burn to my face. The only way I am able to tell you about what happened, is because my Nephew filled in the gaps of time during his laughter while I was getting patched up at the hospital. So, I did not serve the dinner on my own, but with my nephew’s prompting, and assistance, I got it done somehow! But to also note I underwent an extensive grilling by my therapists, and the VA when I showed up for my appointments with patches on my arms.

In other more frequent episodes of losing time, I have been known to be walking down a sidewalk, near a busy street with friends and just walk out into traffic, with no memory of what happened. Thank goodness I was with someone who was able to steer me back to the sidewalk without being hit. But I have been hit once or twice when I was on my own (Not to worry, I now have a service dog to keep me on the sidewalks when I am alone).

My PTSD & Me

My PTSD and Me
My PTSD and Me
This is a true story of a woman, told by her, about her struggles to deal with her PTSD. It’s a moving story that Dena Leibovitz shares her story and journey in finding help with, and dealing with her own PTSD struggle. Its a paperback book, and I believe you can also get the Kindle version if you wish. There is a lot that I am sure you can identify with; both if you are dealing with PTSD, or a loved one who is working with a spouse or significant other deal with it. It brings a good understanding of some of our struggles, even if your Traumatic event(s) are different than Dena’s. Great Read. Click on the link and you will be taken to Amazon to purchase the book or ebook. Enjoy!
 

Did I Get Off Subject With Losing Time?

If you are wondering how I went to “Losing Time,” from talking about Flashbacks and Nightmares? Well, I did because these are all called “disassociating” events that deal with coping with stress, anxiety, fear, anger, and almost any other emotion you can think of, that relates to (in some way) memories of one or more of the several traumatic events I have experienced.

I also veered off on the course of bringing the loss of time, in on the conversation, because I know of several of my friends, who are also dealing with PTSD symptoms, that are dealing with spouses that don’t know how to deal with it. The spouses, or significant others, think that losing time after an episode of a flashback or nightmare (which is also a dissociative symptom that works hand in hand with this), is just an excuse to deny remembering something they spoke about, or did (not) do during one of these episodes.

Although I have not seen many articles which will include all three symptoms of PTSD, together. I don’t know if during the writing, other authors Just over-look it and lump the Flashbacks and Nightmares together, because they are so similar. But I felt that it needed to be noted that in my experiences, when I do experience one or both a nightmare, or Flashback, I also at times have to deal with time loss; which may last hours and in some instances days on end. So, as an after thought I figured I would add the little bit about the Loss of Time, in this article.

It is my intention only to help those who have loved ones who suffer with PTSD, regardless of whether or not their traumatic events were of military service connection. It is not to give cover or excuse for their actions, nor mine, but rather to let them know that their loved one is truly suffering and it is not an excuse when they tell you, “I don’t remember something happened on a certain day, or at a certain time.” It’s also my intention to let others who deal with PTSD, that they are not alone! There are others who are living with this as well. I would say if you are not receiving help with your PTSD, please seek help by speaking to your Doctors or Mental Health Provider.

Thank you for stopping by, Bless

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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    • repoprimo profile imageAUTHOR

      Gary 

      2 years ago from California

      I live with the effects of my Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder on a daily basis and have done so for over 33 years now. I find that a lot of my friends ask me questions and I take those questions and write my articles on them, to answer both them and possibly your questions as well. I use this platform to help in my recovery and to help me deal with my C-PTSD issues, and to find my voice in this. It is my hope also to help other sufferers deal with their situations, and to let them know that they are not alone. I have found out, during my 5 years of therapy, that athought everyone’s PTSD situation is different, and so is the Trauma that they experienced, the feelings and root causes of the PTSD, are pretty similar. I once thought that I was alone, I once thought no one would understand what I had been through.. That is true! However, I also have found that one persons symptoms are shared by many and many do understand the symptoms and use much the same methods to deal with their struggles. I hope you enjoy the read, as much as I enjoyed writing this. I have other articles dealing with my experiences with PTSD, which are very personal, but I share them with you, in hopes of helping you move forward on the path to healing. Enjoy and Bless

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