His eyes turned black like fear. I didn’t want to get too close. Every once in a while, he seemed startled to see me beside him, as if he weren’t sure who I was or what I meant to do to him. That night, he cried. He raged. He watched his friends die in his head all over again. I tried to bring him back, but I couldn’t. All I could do was wait for the episode to run its course.
If you’re married to a combat vet, there’s a good chance you can relate. Flashbacks in veterans are a common problem that soldiers and their spouses must learn how to deal with. 14.6 percent of ex-POWs in one study reported flashbacks in the month leading up to the interview, while 60 percent of Vietnam veterans reported flashbacks.
Flashbacks are like intense, repeated, vivid nightmares when you’re awake. They’re an indication that a veteran is having a hard time dealing with what happened and what they did during the war. A symptom of PTSD, flashbacks in veterans can be sudden, feel uncontrollable, and last anywhere from seconds to days. If they aren’t addressed, they can get worse over time.
During a flashback, vets might stay somewhat connected to reality or lose touch altogether. Sometimes they can’t tell the flashback from reality. They may feel like the enemy is there with them in the room, and their lives are in danger once again.
It’s like the war never ended.
Signs of Flashbacks in Veterans
How do you know if your husband or wife is struggling with flashbacks? You can probably already answer this question, but it might help to familiarize yourself with a few of the signs of flashbacks, anyway, including:
- Your veteran seems like he’s reliving a traumatic event.
- A sight, smell, or sound sends him back to when the event happened.
- Strong feelings come up out of nowhere that make him lose touch with reality.
- He might remember every little detail about the event.
- He may remember the whole event or just little details.
- He might feel the same emotions he felt during the event.
- He may see full or partial images of what happened.
- He may feel physical sensations, such as pressure or pain, or sensations he felt during the trauma.
“It didn’t take much to send my mind back there. Trash on the side of the road, large crowds of people, fireworks–a lot of things seemed to trigger flashbacks. Even though I knew it wasn’t real, it still felt like it throughout my body.”Make the Connection
There are also warning signs we can look out for that tell us our partner may have a flashback soon, such as:
- Her mood suddenly changes.
- She feels pressure in her chest.
- She starts sweating.
- Her surroundings might look blurry.
- She might feel separated from herself, other people, or the world.
If we can spot these warning signs, we can help our spouses prevent flashbacks in the future. When it comes to dealing with these episodes, prevention is key.
“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.”www.mind.org.uk
As you can see, identifying and staying alert for signs and warning signs of flashbacks in veterans requires open communication and a sense of duty to take care of one another, which I’m careful to honor in my own marriage. That’s the only way anyone is going to heal.
What Causes Flashbacks in Veterans?
A veteran may have flashbacks because of circumstances similar to the trauma she endured, or she might experience emotions that remind her of what happened. Certain people or places can trigger flashbacks, too. Even unrelated stress can send a vet spinning into a dark place in the past.
When my husband has flashbacks, it’s usually because of a scene in a movie or fireworks or a crowded place. I think he gets triggered when we fight with each other or when he feels guilty about something, too, even though he’s never said so.
Once he got triggered when his employee got cut in the neck and started bleeding out and going into shock. Taking care of his young, wounded friend and seeing the terror in his eyes sent my husband right back to the Iraqi desert, where he got stuck for the rest of the day.
What’s happening in our partners’ brains when they have a flashback? Why do they get stuck in that hell? To answer that question, we’re going to explore the science behind this disturbing, life-altering phenomenon.
The Science Behind Flashbacks in Veterans
Flashbacks have to do with how the brain stores and retrieves memories. This process involves two parts of the brain: the amygdala and the hippocampus.
Normally, the amygdala deals with emotional memories of an event, especially those based in fear, while the hippocampus deals with the details of an event, such as attributes in the environment and who else is there. These two parts of the brain work together to form cohesive memories that make sense to us.
During a traumatic episode, though, the brain acts differently. When we’re threatened, the amygdala goes into overdrive, and the hippocampus is suppressed. We remember what scared us and how that felt but not necessarily everything else about the situation. From an evolutionary point of view, this makes sense. The brain is worried about remembering the danger, not everything else.
The problem starts when the threat is over. We’re left with strong emotional memories (the fear during battle) and not necessarily the context of the event (where the battle took place, etc.). We might begin to associate certain sights or smells with fear and danger.
Once we’re triggered by a particular sight or smell, the amygdala retrieves the memory of the fear and prepares the body for fight-or-flight. Since the hippocampus wasn’t working correctly when the trauma happened, it can’t kick in to tell the amygdala that this situation is different, and we can calm down.
The brain is running on pure emotion with no context to put it in check. Veterans can respond to triggers like this for years, leaving them unable to enjoy life and afraid of when and where they might have a flashback. Many also worry about what other people may think.
There’s someone else who’s impacted, too: their wives.
Effects of Flashbacks on Veterans’ Spouses
When my husband has flashbacks, I feel everything from fear to confusion to helplessness. Sometimes I feel resentful, sad, frustrated, and discouraged, like I’ve lost something. At other times I grieve for him and what he’s lost.
I also deal with what I call “emotional hangovers” after long nights helping my soldier fight his own, personal war. The next morning I feel tired, deflated, and sad. Often I feel lonely, too, since most people can’t understand where I’m coming from. They can’t grasp the severity of what my husband and I just went through.
Going out in public can be different for vets and their spouses, as well. Sometimes our outings are cut short because my husband will suddenly get triggered by a large crowd. I’ve had to learn how to help and support him in these situations without making him feel ashamed. In fact, sometimes I’m the one to suggest we leave.
I also struggle with how to explain his behavior or talk about my own feelings while also trying to respect him. Even when I write about his PTSD, there are certain things I don’t talk about. I try to stick to my thoughts, feelings, fears, frustrations, and hopes, not his. I stick to my story. My soldier will tell his own when he’s ready.
For more about how veterans’ PTSD symptoms impact their wives, check out How Someone Else’s PTSD Can Change Us.
“Every war has its after-war.”David Finkel, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist
How to Help Someone Having a Flashback
Although we can’t necessarily stop flashbacks in veterans, there are a few ways we can help our loved ones through an episode.
Suggest They Focus On the Sights, Smells, and Sounds Around Them
My husband tends to close his eyes and bury his face in his arms during a flashback. This disconnects him from the world even more, so I try to encourage him to stay with me, here and now.
Intense sensory experiences that are hard to ignore are especially effective during flashbacks: listening to loud music, holding some ice, sniffing peppermint, or sucking on a lemon. Your spouse can also make a list of everything he sees in the room. The act of writing may help him stay grounded, as well.
Tell Them Ways This Situation Differs From the Traumatic Event
Maybe it’s the middle of winter instead of July in the desert. Maybe you’re in your clean, air-conditioned room and not in the hot, dirty street. And, most importantly, no one is shooting at you.
The problem is your veteran’s brain isn’t registering where he is and what’s happening now. Your job is to fill in for his hippocampus and try to bring him back to this moment, where he’s safe and loved.
Encourage Them to Acknowledge Their Feelings
Our soldiers might be feeling a lot of emotions all at once: fear, rage, desperation, depression, shame, guilt, or a sense of losing their minds. Pinpointing what they’re feeling might help them stay grounded in the present.
Usually, my husband judges his feelings during an episode. I try to discourage this because it makes him feel worse. I tell him I’d probably feel the same way, too, if I’d walked a mile in his combat boots. Anyone human would feel what he’s feeling.
Instruct Them to Focus on Physical Sensations
Again, we’re trying to help our spouses stay grounded. You could tell them to focus on how their feet feel on the floor or give them a stress ball or fuzzy stuffed animal.
Since I know how my husband responds to my touch during a flashback, I rub his head and his shoulders, but I move slowly. Make sure you won’t alarm them even more before you touch them.
Guide Them Through Relaxation Exercises
Probably your simplest option would be deep breathing. Instruct them to breathe into their stomachs as much as they can, hold it, and then exhale completely, pausing before they take another breath, releasing all the carbon dioxide in their system.
When we’re stressed, we tend to hold our breath, so sometimes we need to be reminded to breathe. Low oxygen levels can make someone feel even more anxious. A few deep breaths can help your veteran feel calmer and more grounded.
Have Them Concentrate on Their Blessings
I like to get my husband focusing on our marriage, our son, his job. It might only work for a minute, but it’s worth it.
Suggest They Do Something
They can drink something, smoke a cigarette, or have a snack, or they could do something they particularly enjoy. In this way, a flashback is also similar to depression: doing anything is better than sitting still and sinking even deeper into blackness.
Remind Them Flashbacks Are a Normal Response to Unimaginable Trauma
As I said, my husband beats himself up about his response to triggers, which doesn’t help anything. Our veterans already have enough self-loathing. They don’t need to berate themselves over their flashbacks, too.
Personally, I think that war is the most unnatural experience a human being can go through. Our brains weren’t designed to process such atrocities. I tell my partner that anyone would have a hard time moving on.
This is the most valuable tool I have when it comes to my husband’s episodes. No more flashbacks for at least half an hour, and he usually falls asleep when we’re done. It’s an emotional and physical experience that gets him moving and focusing on something outside himself. It calms him down and grounds him in the here and now in a way nothing else can, not to mention, I could use a release, too. Everyone wins.
Try to Help Them Feel Secure
Wrapping them in a blanket or leaving them by themselves in a small, quiet room may help them feel safer. I also like to bombard my husband with “I love you’s.”
Open spaces may aggravate flashbacks in veterans, so you might want to stay indoors as opposed to going outside. It’s up to your soldier. Let him tell you what he needs to feel safe and secure.
Help Them Figure Out What Their Triggers Are
Familiarizing ourselves with our spouses’ triggers can help prevent future flashbacks and help with other PTSD symptoms, too. Through the years, I’ve learned what my husband’s triggers are and how he looks when he gets triggered. Sometimes I know him better than he knows himself. I know what to avoid and what’s coming next if we can’t avoid it.
Most of the time, my husband does everything he can to not think about his PTSD and what triggers it, so it’s been up to me to analyze and research and let him know what I’ve observed. At times, though, pinpointing triggers has been a team effort.
The bottom line is, don’t underestimate the support and insight you have to give. You are probably the most valuable tool you have when your veteran has flashbacks.
Let Them Talk As Much or As Little As They Want
There are times my husband needs to tell me stories or grieve for a friend or get angry. Sometimes he starts a story but can’t finish it. Sometimes he doesn’t want to talk at all. I may coax him or ask quiet questions to get him to keep talking, but I never force him to do anything.
Above all else, I want him to feel safe. Everything we do for our veterans during a flashback is to this end.
Suggest They Talk to Themselves
This is yet another way they can ground themselves. They can remind themselves they’re having a flashback, that they’re safe, and that the trauma is over. They can describe out loud everything they see, smell, taste, feel, and hear.
It doesn’t matter what they talk about as long as they keep talking and stay in today as much as possible.
Don’t Give Them a Drink
Even though many vets try to medicate their flashbacks with alcohol, drinking can make an episode worse. I know this from exerience. When my husband drinks during a flashback, he gets stuck. Booze makes the experience longer and more intense. A nightmare that could’ve lasted a few minutes drags on for hours, which can be avoided by simply not getting drunk.
I like to give my husband melatonin when he has flashbacks. It’s a substance our brain makes naturally when we fall asleep. Other sleep aids would work just fine, too. He goes to sleep, and by morning, the danger has usually passed.
Drown Out the Sound of Fireworks
If it’s a holiday and your spouse got triggered by fireworks, there are ways you can block out the noise. I set my husband up with earplugs and a box fan. We turn the TV up loud, or he plays videogames while wearing headphones. You can get creative and find what works for you.
Studies have shown that strong hugs calm down the nervous system. If you’re sure a hug will help rather than hurt the situation, go ahead and hold your partner. It might be exactly what she needs.
Now, my next question is: what do you need? As your soldier’s most important person and the one he trusts the most, what do you need to do to stay safe, healthy, and happy?
How to Stay Safe When Someone Else Has a Flashback
Handling a flashback can be a volatile, unpredictable situation. Although our main concern is helping our veterans feel safe, we need to make sure we stay safe, too. Here are a few suggestions for how to make that happen:
- Don’t make any sudden movements. Tell your partner what you’re about to do, and then do it slowly.
- Stay calm. If you aren’t relaxed, you can’t help your veteran feel safe. If you feel yourself struggling, maybe step away for a moment.
- Don’t touch your spouse unless you’re sure of how he’ll react. If you do touch him, be gentle and slow.
- Don’t make any loud, sudden noises.
- If you’re afraid for your physical safety, leave the room. This might be hard to do, but we’re still obligated to our own well-being, too.
We need to take care of ourselves when the episode is over, too. This means talking to someone we trust and being patient with ourselves the next day. We probably won’t feel like ourselves, especially if we’re tired and worried about our loved ones. Depending on what our spouses may have told us, we might feel haunted for a while, too. Some of the stories we can’t even share with anyone else.
The burden we’re helping them carry is too big to not have an effect on us. We have to take care of ourselves.
If you could use help getting support or keeping yourself safe, you can go to Help for Veterans’ Spouses for information about community resources.
We Are Strong, Blessed Women
Although being in love with a wounded soldier comes with a lot of baggage, I feel special and blessed. I’m proud to say I’m married to a war veteran. I’m proud to tell you how much my spouse has sacrificed for your freedom.
My soldier trusts me more than he trusts anyone else. I know who he is and what triggers him and what he needs better than anyone does. I am his biggest ally, and that’s an honor.
I think my husband and I found each other for a reason. He needed someone who was empathetic, patient, and forgiving, someone who knew how to be there for him, a woman who could look beneath his scars and see him. He needed someone strong as hell, and he found her. Your partner found the same thing in you.
I needed my husband, too. I needed a soldier, a loyal man who’d be there no matter what. I needed the connection I’ve found with him. It’s taken years to break down the reinforced walls he built almost two decades ago. I’m so grateful I was always there to listen and wait. I’m grateful he finally let me in.
There is no bond like the one between a soldier and his civilian. I needed that, and so did he.