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Signs and Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

Approximately 8 million adults cope with PTSD, here's what you need to know about the condition and how to get help
PTSD signs and symptoms

It was a sunny lunch hour and I was running an errand. I could see an out-of-control van weaving in and out of the oncoming lane so I sped up to get by. I had no other options. The van rapidly veered straight for me, totaled my vehicle, and hit the driver behind me, head on. The impaired driver died at the scene, the driver behind me was badly injured, and I walked away unscathed, or so I thought.

Re-experiencing a traumatic event repeatedly through flashbacks or nightmares is a symptom of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and approximately 8 million adults in the U.S. will suffer from PTSD in a given year.

The National Institute of Mental Health specifies that not everyone who goes through a traumatic event develops PTSD and experiencing a dangerous event isn't always the trigger. It's a highly individualized disorder of varying lengths, multiple symptoms, and it can become chronic.

PTSD Signs and Symptoms

- Re-experiencing: having heart-racing flashbacks, nightmares or bad dreams; or frightening thoughts

- Avoidance: avoiding locations, objects, events, or the thoughts/feelings related to the traumatic event

- Arousal and reactivity: being easily startled, on edge, having difficulty with sleep, having angry outbursts

- Cognition and mood: difficulty remembering details of the traumatic event, distorted and/or negative beliefs of oneself, loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed, feeling estranged from others

What is a flashback?

Flashbacks are a key symptom of PTSD and defined as involuntary, distressing, and sensory-based memories. The vision of yesterday's lunch that pops in your head is scientifically known as an "ordinary autobiographical memory." Unlike ordinary involuntary visions, flashbacks can flood your mind, freeze you momentarily as they re-immerse you in the traumatic situation, and may cause physical symptoms such as headaches and nausea. They typically are a snippet of the event as opposed to re-experiencing the entire event, and research is focusing on this hallmark PTSD symptom to improve therapies and help those in need.

In one study, researchers wanted to know if the encoding in the brain for flashbacks happened at the time of trauma. Participants without a history of PTSD were shown a movie containing distressing and non-distressing individual scenes while undergoing functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) and heart rate monitoring. During the following week, each participant recorded flashbacks to certain movie scenes in a diary.

The results? The fMRIs displayed significantly increased brain activity over many regions when participants viewed a distressing scene that later flashed back as recorded in their diaries. The researchers point out that watching trauma does not cause the same level of distress as experiencing trauma but it's an important step in trying to pinpoint when and where in the brain the encoding for flashbacks might occur and how treatment interventions can help.

"The most effective course of action is to get evidence-based treatment for PTSD," says Sonya Norman, PhD, director of the PTSD Consultation Program for the National Center for PTSD, and professor of psychiatry at the University of California School of Medicine. "Flashbacks usually get better (less severe, less frequent) as other symptoms of PTSD get better in treatment as well. Evidence-based treatments include prolonged exposure therapy and cognitive processing therapy."

PTSD is not something to tackle alone. After the accident, something changed in how I viewed others and myself and I sought professional help right away. If you are unsure of what to do, the online therapy option here on 7 Cups might be the first step. Here's why:

  • Connect with a licensed, experienced therapist in a HIPAA-compliant, in a confidential online space

  • Experience unlimited, anonymous chat support

  • Save money over traditional therapy

  • Communicate from the comfort of your home

In the short term, Norman suggests managing stress, staying rested, avoiding drugs and alcohol, and using grounding techniques (for example, focusing on an object or physical sensation to try to stay present) can help. "These strategies may help manage flashbacks, but evidence-based treatments are the best way to reduce or stop them long term," says Norman.

For more support, read this guide on PTSD, join our empathetic community, chat with a free, trained listener, or start affordable online therapy today.

Sources: The neural basis of flashback formation: the impact of viewing trauma Re-experiencing traumatic events in PTSD: new avenues in research on intrusive memories and flashbacks REM sleep and safety signal learning in posttraumatic stress disorder: A preliminary study in military veterans Treating PTSD: A Review of Evidence-Based Psychotherapy Interventions

Posted: 19 June 2019
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Julie Ford

Julie is a Michigan-based writer with a passion for mental health advocacy.

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