What Are PTSD Flashbacks?

Mary McMahon

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) flashbacks are intrusive recollections of a traumatic event. They can emerge after trauma and may persist for years, often becoming disruptive to the patient’s life. Treatments are available to help people manage PTSD flashbacks and other symptoms, like avoidant behavior and depression, effectively. These can include medications and therapy with a specialist familiar with the condition, along with the use of a service animal to help the patient cope with specific issues.

Post-traumatic stress syndrome can become a prominent problem for military personnel.
Post-traumatic stress syndrome can become a prominent problem for military personnel.

The extent of a flashback can vary depending on the patient, the trauma, and the situation. Some people may experience unwelcome thoughts like abrupt memories of a traumatic situation, which sometimes come with visual, auditory, or olfactory sensations. A patient who survived a car accident, for example, might smell spilled fuel or hear the ticking of an engine. In some cases, severe PTSD flashbacks cause someone to feel like the event is being relived in real time, and the patient may start to act out the events of the trauma.

Someone with PTSD related to military service might be uncomfortable with ceiling fans and other equipment that can look or sound like a helicopter.
Someone with PTSD related to military service might be uncomfortable with ceiling fans and other equipment that can look or sound like a helicopter.

Flashbacks can cause extreme emotional distress for patients, and they can be highly disruptive. They may occur randomly or in response to specific stimuli, which some patients refer to as “triggers.” These could include particular environments as well as other sensory stimuli. Someone with PTSD related to military service, for example, might be uncomfortable around helicopters as well as ceiling fans and other equipment that can look or sound like a helicopter.

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Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition that results from physical or emotional trauma.
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a psychiatric condition that results from physical or emotional trauma.

During PTSD flashbacks, patients may not be able to perform tasks of daily living and can become extremely agitated. Some respond by hiding or isolating themselves, while others may become aggressive or agitated. Flashbacks can become disabling because the patient may not be able to attend school, go to work, care for children, and perform other tasks. An evaluation can determine the extent of the PTSD and assist with the development of an appropriate care plan.

Some patients with PTSD flashbacks may find therapy helpful, to work through the events of the trauma and develop specific coping skills for handling flashbacks when they occur. Others may benefit from medications to manage depression and other psychiatric disturbances. Service animals can also be helpful; a PTSD service dog, for example, can help a patient with hypervigilance during a PTSD flashbacks by checking a room or structure to confirm it is safe, or may guide care providers to a patient who is hiding in distress or fear.

People with PTSD are often plagued by intrusive memories of traumatic experiences.
People with PTSD are often plagued by intrusive memories of traumatic experiences.

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