Why do we experience flashbacks?
Flashbacks are involuntary memories in which we re-experience past events that evoked strong emotional responses. These memories may be images, sounds or aromas. They can leave us feeling intensely anxious, fearful and confused. It often feels like the event is happening in the present moment.
Flashbacks along with avoidant and numbing symptoms and hyperarousal are associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in which there is a history of being exposed to a traumatic event.
The answer to why we experience these involuntary memories lays in the way our brain stores and retrieves memories.
Events in our lives are recorded and stored in our brains as memories. Normally we are able to access these memories and recall events clearly. To recall memories we use a part of the brain called the cortex which enables us to bring understanding and meaning to the memories and the ability to make intentional choices. We are able to talk about the events in sequence, place them in a time frame and understand them knowing that they may not be in the ‘here and now’ and that they are coming from the past. This type of memory we call conscious.
When we experience an emotionally charged or traumatic event these experiences are recorded in a part of our brain called the amygdala. For example; war, rape, car accident, childhood sexual abuse, domestic abuse, bullying or any other situation in which we respond with fear, terror or sadness. The amygdala is responsible for processing our emotions and it functions as an alarm system. This alarm system allows us to make a rapid response to danger and act before our brains have a chance to process what is happening.
The way this works is that the amygdala releases hormones creating a hormonal cascade which immediately leads to fight flight or freeze responses in the body. Examples of the effect of this hormonal cascade include increasing the flow of blood to our extremities to prepare us to flee, relaxation of the bladder and tunnel vision.
In effect a traumatic event bypasses the cortex and is stored as an emotional/sensory response in our amygdala. As the cortex is not involved there is no information stored with the event such as when it occurred.
When our senses re-experience aspects of the original trauma or we are reminded of it in any way our amygdala responds by reproducing these ‘unconscious memories’ or flashbacks of images, smells and sounds and the terror and fear that were a part of that original trauma. This unconscious memory has no time sequencing or understanding and perception stored with it so when we are reminded of the trauma we respond like it is in the ‘here and now’.
An example of this might be that a victim of rape may see a tall shadowy stranger walking towards them which produces flashbacks of the overwhelming terror accompanied by the sensory experiences which could include sweating, dilated pupils and increased heart rate associated with the rape. They may then associate the stranger with the memories and expect that the stranger is a danger to them in the ‘here and now’. High stress levels are known to suppress our ability to access our conscious memory thus we are unable to bring conscious thought to this situation to realise this person is not a danger to us.
Many of us will develop avoidance behaviours to stop these intrusive unconscious memories or flashbacks. In the example above avoidant behaviour may be to avoid dark streets, or walking down particular streets or perhaps not going out at all.
So what can we do to avoid this emotional hijacking?
By analysing our perceptions and examining the details of past events we can create, reprogram and reinforce new links and bridges between conscious and unconscious memories developing new neural pathways which help to moderate the alarm signals of the amygdala.
In addition a useful approach is to apply mindfulness techniques to our emotional responses. Mindfulness is about developing our awareness of being in the here and now using different techniques such as conscious breathing techniques to ground us in our bodies. Mindfulness can help give us the time delay needed to bring a more thorough analysis of the present situation to avoid repeating old patterns from the past.