Here on the Peer Support Central Blog, we often talk about how a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is experiencing flashbacks. But what is a flashback exactly, and what separates it from a memory? Those who experience flashbacks in the wake of a traumatic experience know all too well the real, raw emotion that a flashback can bring. Today, we would like to go in-depth about what happens during a flashback, distinguishing different types of flashbacks, and explaining what makes these events different from simply “remembering” an experience.

Two Types Of Flashbacks Are Associated With PTSD

There are two main classes of flashbacks that people dealing with PTSD might experience: explicit and implicit. During an explicit flashback, a person feels and believes as if they are actively experiencing an event. This is the type of flashback most often portrayed on TV and in movies, where a war veteran here’s a loud noise and is transported back to the frontlines. An explicit flashback involves re-experiencing an event exactly as it was perceived to have happened. During this time, a person may feel as if their life is in danger, even if they are sitting in their living room.

The second type of flashback is an implicit flashback. Implicit flashbacks involve intense emotions triggered by a stimulus, such as a smell, sound, or word, but there are no specific memories associated with the feeling. Sometimes these flashbacks might be caused by childhood abuse that was experienced before long-term memories could form. Other times, your mind has repressed trauma experienced during adulthood, and though you are feeling the intense emotion associated with an event, identifying the event can be nearly impossible. These types of flashbacks are more difficult to pinpoint because often a person does not even realize they are experiencing it. While a person having an explicit flashback can later recognize that flashback as a memory, implicit flashbacks cause us to mistakenly believe something or someone in the present is the cause of the flood of emotion.

What To Do During And After Experiencing A Flashback

Often times you don’t realize you are experiencing a traumatic flashback until after it is over, or in the case of implicit flashbacks, you might not realize it at all. If able, remind yourself that the experience is over and that you survived. Most experts agree that a good coping mechanism is to attempt to ground yourself to the present by using all of your senses. Focus on what you are seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting in that exact moment. Create a present to be part of. For example, hold a piece of ice in your hand, smell something potent like peppermint or lavender essential oils, and make a mental list of what you see and hear in the room. These are designed to help your brain remember where it is in that moment.

Prevention Is Key

Flashbacks, both implicit and explicit, are almost always triggered by some stimulus. This can be a sound, being in a certain location, seeing a certain person, a smell, or other cues. If you are able to identify your triggers, you can attempt to avoid them, or if unavoidable, prepare yourself to experience them. Next time you experience a flashback, try to bring yourself back to the moment directly before it happened. Can you think of a possible trigger or feeling that crept up beforehand?

If you are experiencing flashbacks or other symptoms of PTSD, it is important to remember that you are not alone and you are not hopeless. At Peer Support Central, we believe that this isn’t a solo battle. By talking to a peer support specialist for PTSD, you can better identify what you are feeling and why, which is the first step in preventing and coping with flashbacks in the future. Contact Peer Support Central today to learn more about peer support programs near you.