Flashbacks. When many people hear this word, they think of a scene in a movie or novel that takes place in the past. They could be imagining a company manager praising their co-worker for his continuous devotion. The latter leaves his office content and with a sense of nostalgia at this compliment and proceeds to recall the day he had joined the workforce. One might also think of a street corner with their favorite character appearing visibly despondent, tears running down his face before the camera pulls back. It cuts away and to reveal that he had lost his grandfather earlier that day. In the context of the media, flashbacks can range from benign and humorous to shocking and heartbreaking. However, a flashback for someone with PTSD is a reminder and a re-experience of a traumatic event they have encountered.
Post-traumatic stress disorder can be triggered by exposure to actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation, exposure must result from directly one or more; experiencing the traumatic event, witnessing the traumatic event in person, learning that the traumatic event occurred to a close family member or close friend or experiences first-hand repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event. When triggered, an individual may enter a dissociative state, reliving and behaving as if the event is occurring in the present (American Psychiatric Association, 2013).Â A rape survivor, when triggered, may begin to smell scents or feel pain similar to what was experienced during her assault (Tull, 2017). Imagine confronting dangers that are no longer present but resonate in your senses to the point they feel real. Flashbacks are like waking nightmares. They may make a person vividly feel sensations, hear sounds, and see events that they encountered during their traumatic moment (Chi, 2017). A flashback is able to mimic the real thing because it provokes a similar level of stress in the body. The same hormones course through your veins that did at the time of the actual trauma, setting your heart pounding and preparing your muscles and other body systems to react as they did at the time (Rothschild, 2010).
Flashbacks can interfere with one’s perception of reality and leave them with heightened levels of stress and fear even after the flashbacks have ended. On Sept. 11, 2001, NYPD Detective Anthony Yacopino was driving along the Long Island Expressway when he witnessed the second plane, United Airlines Flight 175, hit the south tower. Yacopino’s unit started a family bereavement center in order to help family members identify victims of the attack. From then, he worked sifting through the debris, searching for remains of anything that could help convey the fate of someone’s loved one. In 2002, Yacopino’s began experiencing panic attacks as well as an aversion to low flying planes. He had flashbacks when he would recall his weeks working in a bereavement center. When examined at a hospital, The cardiologist said, nothing’s wrong with your heart. What’s going on? He was later told that—like a soldier returning from war — he had post-traumatic stress disorder before bursting into tears (Ochs, 2011).
While many of us are able to push a negative experience to the back of our mind, this is not entirely possible for those who experience severe trauma and develop PTSD. Unlike nightmares, flashbacks occur while a person is awake and make it more difficult to distinguish between reality and illusions. However, with different types of therapy (including exposure and cognitive behavioral therapy) its occurrence can be alleviated.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Chi, A. T. (2017, August 31). What Happens in Your Brain During a PTSD Flashback? https://www.talkspace.com/blog/2017/06/happens-brain-ptsd-flashback/
Ochs, R. (2011, August 18). 9/11 first responders’ battle with PTSD. http://www.newsday.com/911-anniversary/9-11-first-responders-battle-with-ptsd-1.3107122
Rothschild, B. (2012). 8 keys to safe trauma recovery: take-charge strategies to empower your healing. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.
Tull, Matthew. (2017, February 21). How to Minimize PTSD Flashbacks and Identify Triggers. https://www.verywell.com/coping-with-flashbacks-2797574