What Is a PTSD Flashback Like?
Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) flashbacks are examples of a re-experiencing of the trauma that caused the PTSD. Because of this, the details of the flashback tend to be impacted by the person who experienced the trauma as well as the type of trauma he or she experienced. What can be said for what happens during most PTSD flashbacks is that it is scary for those experiencing it and even for those around them.
What PTSD Flashbacks Are Like
Posttraumatic stress disorder flashbacks are like a memory, or part of a memory, that feels like it’s happening right now. So if you have experienced a trauma and have PTSD, you may have times when it feels like you are reliving the trauma. This can be very scary as the person having the flashback may not be able to connect with the present moment and may act like the trauma is currently occurring.
According to one person with PTSD:
“I feel like I’m straddling a timeline where the past is pulling me in one direction and the present another. I see flashes of images and noises burst through, fear comes out of nowhere… my heart races and my breathing is loud and I no longer know where I am.”
What Happens During a PTSD Flashback?
What happens, specifically, during a PTSD flashback is individual. That said, according to mental health charity Mind, the general things that happen during a PTSD flashback include:
- Seeing full or partial images of the traumatic event
- Noticing any sense that is related to the trauma (such as hearing, smelling or tasting something)
- Feeling physical symptoms that you experienced during the trauma, such as pain or pressure
- Experiencing the emotions that happened during the trauma (this could be almost anything such as fear or even rage)
Flashbacks can last a second, minutes, hours or even longer.
What Does a PTSD Flashback Look Like?
To someone around a person experiencing a flashback, PTSD flashbacks can look strange. This is because the person experiencing the flashback may act like they are currently experiencing a traumatic event. For example, a veteran may “hit the deck” (dive to the floor) when a loud noise is heard as it may create a flashback of when he or she was being shot at. To the person watching this PTSD flashback, it can look random and completely unmotivated. The person experiencing the flashback can look like his or her actions are “crazy”, when this isn’t the case at all. What the person is really doing is experiencing a severe mental illness symptom.
PTSD Flashback Examples
Monika Sudakov of The Mighty, talks about examples of her PTSD flashbacks:
”Sometimes, it’s as crazy as turning around in the middle of dinner and seeing him standing there, which takes my breath away and triggers my freeze instinct. Often, it happens at night while I lie awake, my brain racing with thoughts, unable to shut them off. All of a sudden, it feels like a wave flooding over my body paralyzing me. I instantly am transported back into my child body.”
”I relive, in absolute vivid detail, a particularly horrible experience. Things like the smell of his breath, the steam on his glasses, the blue towel with multi-colored fish hanging on the towel rack, the taste of his saliva, the feeling of his rough hands against my skin, even the exact blue jean skirt and checkered top I’m wearing bunching up against my skin are intensely and painfully felt. All the while, it’s as though I’m trapped by my mind and my body. An endless loop of remembering and feeling.”
One man who once worked as a fire department officer, provides this PTSD flashback example:
”When the distress was at its worst, I had three or four flashbacks a day. I would sweat and become very nervous as I remembered the events of 20 years ago. All the smells were there, and I even felt the heat of the fire moving across my face. People who saw me say that I sometimes walked about and mouthed words, but I was completely detached from my surroundings.”
Last Updated: 26 January 2018
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD