Flashbacks refer to the sudden recall of a traumatic event. They are not the same as ordinary bad memories. For example, you might remember accidently hitting your head, but you don't actually feel the pain you felt at the time.
When you're experiencing a flashback, you don't get the sense that the memory is coming from the past. That's why it's so disturbing. A flashbacks catapults you to the moment of a traumatic event. You actually feel the fear and other sensations you felt then.
Some flashbacks are relatively mild and easily dismissed. Others are so powerful they can deter you from leaving your home for fear you will be triggered unknowingly.
Flashbacks and Memory
Re-experiencing a traumatic event in a flashback does not necessarily reveal everything that actually happened. Ordinarily only fragments of the event are remembered and re-experienced.
Sometimes, you have no awareness of where the memory arises from. This is particularly distressing because you have no control over when they get triggered.
And, flashbacks are not restricted to images. They can take many forms including body sensations, specific smells, dreams (nightmares), sounds or intense emotions.
Flashbacks are remembered in fragments due to the way the memory system is set up in the brain. This is because the trauma response releases hormones in the blood that are toxic to our hippocampal memory system (i.e. our explicit memory system).
But our body felt memory, thought to reside--among other places--in the amygdala, is not subject to the same decay, so the felt experience of the body usually survives the traumatic event intact.
What to do?
We never intentionally have a flashback--why would we--and we have almost no ability to stop the awful feelings and memories once they've been triggered.
It's important to understand that when we are having a flashback, we are being triggered into a state of fear. When human beings become fearful we can be easily launched into a child-like state.
You may know that to calm a child down, harsh language will typically not help. This is because fear is right-brain-based. The right brain doesn't understand language like the left brain. Soothing, gentle language on the other hand, produces much better results because the right brain hears the tone of voice and uses this to make assessments of what is being said.
So, keep this in mind as you attempt to calm yourself down.
Here are a few suggestions to ease the shock of a flashback.
You may have already thought of these (sometimes it just takes another person to state it for it to sink in):
- Remind yourself that you have been triggered. Be gentle and patient with yourself. You were triggered unknowingly and you haven't done anything wrong to create it.
- Look for signs of safety in your immediate enviroment. Allow your eyes to cast about the room noticing things that make you feel safe.
- Move to the best seat in the room. Grab a pillow, a blanket or anything that creates additonal feelings of safety.
- Feel your seat and/or your back against the chair, couch or bed. If you are standing, feel your feet.
- Notice and track your breath. Do not force your breath to change but allow yourself to notice it.
- Seek out a nearby friend or give that person a call. Chatting with a close friend will help to re-connect you to the present.
If you want to get a good sense of how a flashback is experienced by another person watch the movie, "Ray" about the legendary entertainer, Ray Charles. It's as close a depiction of flashbacks as I've seen.
You may also find it interesting that nine months after experiencing a traumatizing event--that would haunt him half a life time--Ray Charles Robinson went blind. Something to think about, eh?
Therapy Lingo Article?
Chris (Ontario, Canada)
Hi.I have learned a bit about what I am going through with the flashbacks.I have a question.Is it normal to get a little bit agressive towards others after expeariencing a flashback?
I am 19 and I have no idea how to cope with the flashbacks since they get triggered all the time.If you could email me some information on what I asked,I would really appreciate it.
Hi Chris, yes it's "normal" to feel aggressive after a flashback. Not everyone feels aggressive of course. It depends on one's history and the capacity of the nervous system to handle the increase in activation that comes from a flashback.
Because flashbacks are a re-experiencing of memory fragments of an earlier trauma, they tend to max out our circuits...so to speak. This increase in activation moves us into the fight or flight response...and hence from where feelings of anger often arise.
Your best bet Chris is to find a therapist who can help you contain the activation. As your nervous system begins to regulate itself, it's very likely they will cease to surface.
All the best,
Helen (NJ, USA)
This might sound utterly ridiculus, but here goes- I am not afraid of most things in my environment beyond a healthy fear. (snakes-bite, spiders too) But I fear something that I have no rational explanation for and they can't hurt me. Worms- "they gross me out" so to speak. I enjoy gardening, and I do not mind seeing the critters- in fact sometimes I carefully remove them to my neighbors yard- as I know they are good for the soil. I can hold one, but the problem occurs when I am surprised by one of them. They make me nauceus.
The other day while in the garden- doing the gardening thing, a worm crawled into the side of my sandal. Well, I freaked- screaming- shaking my foot, then ran, I mean bolted into the house. I was so nauceous that I was unable to finish gardening. That was a week ago. And I have not been back in the garden yet.I have had other embarrassing worm experiences too. This is ...no negative terms...limiting.
My question- is this some sort of a flashback revealing itself as a body sensation, and what can I do about it. I am too embarrassed to bring this up to the therapist. (and I do have a good therapist - attuned and all) I think it is stupid or silly- but I can't get past it. Even writing about this makes me feel a bit queasy. Thanks.
This was so curious Helen, I decided to ask my colleague Dr. Carole for input. We both agreed it didn't appear to be a phobia. If it was a phobia, then we would both surmise that you wouldn't be able to hold a worm.
It seems that being surprised is at the root of your response. It may be that as long as you are prepared for a worm you are okay. It's when there is an unanticipated "attack" that you reach your tipping point.
Your reaction does have the characteristics of a flashback in that the sensations of a worm triggers a heightened arousal pattern in your body. It's so high that when you fail to see a worm coming, you move into a flight response, bolting into your house.
This issue is not silly Helen. Your response is automatic because you're being triggered. Possibly the slime feeling has its root somewhere and your therapist can hopefully help you figure this out.
In working it through with him or her, you may be surprised where it takes you. Dr. Carole reflected that experiences like these are such eye openers to who we are within ourselves and in the world.
All the best,
Shrinklady and Dr. Carole
Thanks for writing the article and explaining how flashbacks are different from memories. I have memories a lot but used to explain it to my therapist as flashbacks. Now i can recognise the differences.
I have a question, Post traumatic stress disorder has symptoms of flashbacks, i was just wondering if someone could experience flashbacks but not be experiencing PTSD? I love your site.
Oh yes, Emerald, that's entirely possible. When I witnessed my dog receiving some inhumane treatment at the hands of a veterinary techie, I had flashbacks for days after. I'd wake up in the night finding myself right back there in a frozen state of alarm. (BTW both me and Bobbi are fine now.)
I did not have "PTSD". For this to occur the incident would first need to be of such severity that there was a threat of death or serious injury. I would have to have other symptoms as well.
I like your question Emerald as it prompts me to rant on a bit about an important topic...
As you may already know, PTSD is a collection of symptoms that a board of experts (the folks who wrote the DSM) identified as such. Flashbacks are only one of the symptoms. A certain number of symptoms must be present in a degree of severity to qualify for that diagnosis.
Not everyone agrees with their assessment of what is descriptive of PTSD. Many folks who do body psychotherapy are in disagreement for instance, on the DSM's description of what entails a traumatic event. We see the effects of trauma in our work on a daily basis and recognize what the medical community calls "traumatic" is far too limiting. We see trauma in events that some diagnosticians would not normally conceive as traumatic.
Trauma affects each person differently and its effects are determined by the state of the nervous system at the time of the event.
You see, each nervous system responds differently to a stressful event.
So much has to do with one's personal history (because the emotional and physical aftereffects of stressors tend to "add up" inside) and how resilient a nervous system is in it's capacity to navigate a potentially overwhelming situation.
So, some folks may be traumatized by a fender bender while for others, it takes a surgery or painful dental procedure. And, still others may not have the same experience even during these situations.
Hence, there are too many folks who don't fit the defined PTSD symptoms who are disqualified from receiving treatment. We hope that one day this situation changes.
Glad you like the site Emerald,
Bye for now,
Ross (Oakville, Canada)
Can flashbacks be entirely eliminated?
Interesting question Ross. It's been my experience that clients eventually stop getting flashbacks. Some folks never get another flashback quite soon after starting treatment.
However, it's my guess that if circumstances are such that the individual is challenged in an unusual way, the flashbacks--for that event--may return. And, of course, the brain will always have the capacity for flashbacks for other future events.