As a military veteran who saw combat, you’re still unnerved at the sound of July fourth fireworks or jet engines wailing overhead. You instinctively hold your breath for a moment as your heart races, but the anxiety eventually fades. Some people who live through severe trauma aren’t so lucky and have intense flashbacks of what happened – a key symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder.
What is PTSD?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental illness caused by a frightening event you experienced or witnessed. If you’ve lived through a traumatic event, you may have short-term problems learning to adjust and coping with what happened, but in time you’ll usually get better. But not everyone can manage the symptoms. If they worsen, persist for months or years after the event, and cause disruptions in daily life, you may have PTSD.
Know the Symptoms
PTSD symptoms are divided into four types: avoidance, intrusive memories, negative changes in thinking and mood, and changes in physical and emotional reactions. Symptoms vary by person and over time, and in frequency and intensity.
- Recurrent, unwelcome upsetting memories of what happened
- Avoiding places, activities, or people who remind you of the traumatic experience
- Bad thoughts about yourself, others, or society
- Pessimism about the future
- Being easily alarmed or frightened
- Self-destructive tendencies
- Problems sleeping
How to Manage Flashbacks and Other PTSD Symptoms
For many people with PTSD, flashbacks – relieving the trauma like it was happening again – are one of the most potent and disturbing symptoms of the illness you can have. Flashbacks may signify dissociation, where a person feels disconnected from emotions, identity, memory, and thoughts of themselves and the real world. The danger, however, lies in the fact that flashbacks are always trauma-related and intense to the point of near disability. For instance, a soldier who faced combat may have flashbacks of a deadly battle at the sound of firecrackers simulating a gunshot.
But flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms, as severe as they may be, can be managed. Many people have success with different self-help and coping mechanisms.
- According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), “Deep breathing can help you cope with the stress” traumatic events, acting as a defense against panic, anxiety, or hypervigilance.
- The VA also touts to benefits of progressive muscle relaxation and offers a brief how-to guide for anyone experiencing flashbacks or other PTSD symptoms.
- Mindfulness meditation is more than just closing your eyes and sitting with crossed legs. The U.S. National Institutes of Health reported that meditation, as well as mindfulness-based stress relief and other strategies, may relieve symptoms including avoidance, emotional numbing, guilt, hyperarousal, and negative emotions like shame.
- Social support.
- Healthy emotional expression. Many people with PTSD benefit from keeping journals or writing about their emotions and reactions to everyday life since the trauma happened. It helps them control their own narrative. Another way to express their emotions is through art therapy.
- Mental distractions.
- Behavioral activation is a way for people with flashbacks and other symptoms to boost their activity level plus engage in positive and rewarding activities.
- Exercise and physical activity are positive ways for someone to knock down barriers linked to PTSD, giving them power over the lingering effects of anxiety and depression.
- Aroma therapy.
- Pet therapy. Some people consider their canine partners to be a man’s best friend, and there’s a reason for that. A dog’s natural ability to sense human emotions – stress, fear, grief, sadness, anger – is legendary. Leah Blain, Ph.D., clinic director and licensed clinical psychologist at the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at the University of Pennsylvania in the Department of Psychiatry, said canine companionship is a successful, complementary treatment for someone with PTSD.
Diagnosis & Treatment
If you have flashbacks or other symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend:
- A physical examination to confirm or rule out a medical problem that may be causing the symptoms or making them worse.
- A psychiatric assessment looks at symptoms and the event that led to them. Your healthcare provider will also ask about personal and family history of mental illness.
Finally, your symptoms will be compared to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders criteria before a formal diagnosis.
Ask About Treatment from a Specialty Clinic
Besides self-help and other strategies, your healthcare provider may recommend ongoing psychotherapy plus medicine like antidepressants. In some cases, you may benefit from ketamine infusion therapy available at specialty clinics nationwide.