After experiencing a traumatic event, such as abuse or sexual violence, being involved in an accident, or going through a serious illness, some people develop anxieties about the event and have flashbacks which make it feel like the event is happening again. Flashbacks can be distressing, and it may feel as though you have no control over them or when they happen. In addition to the upset and anxiety, there are a range of feelings associated with flashbacks which are unpleasant, making coping mechanisms essential.
In this article, we’re going to look at flashbacks and intrusive memories in more detail and some of the ways you can cope with them.
What is a flashback?
Firstly, let’s look at exactly what a flashback is. A flashback is when you find yourself reliving a traumatic situation or painful event in your life. They can be triggered by lots of different things and can happen randomly or when you’re not expecting them – even if you’re not necessarily thinking about the event itself at the time.
Flashbacks tend to present themselves in one of two ways:
- Seeing vivid, intrusive images of the event and having unwanted thoughts about it
- Being triggered by sights, sounds, or smells that take you back to the event
During a flashback, it can feel as though you’re back in the midst of the event, with the feelings you felt during it sometimes coming flooding back. It can be very intense and frightening, and it can be hard to separate a flashback from reality when you’re having one.
You might experience some physical symptoms associated with anxiety, such as:
- Heart palpitations
- Tight chest
- Shortness of breath
A fear response is triggered in your brain, causing you to go into the fight, flight, or freeze responses. Flashbacks are early signs that your brain hasn’t fully processed what happened.
Why do I get flashbacks?
When you go through a traumatic event, the human brain will react in a certain way. The prefrontal cortex – the CEO of the brain – shuts down, and the amygdala – the centre of your instincts and emotions – takes control. The reason for this is that our prefrontal cortex would delay our reaction, and may therefore delay us getting to safety, whereas our amygdala acts on instinct and ensures we are safe before we start analysing what has happened. Once we are safe, the prefrontal cortex comes back online and the amygdala stands down.
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that witnesses events, processes them into memories, and stores those memories. So, if this part of the brain is shut down during a traumatic event, it makes sense that we don’t have a clear memory of what has happened. What happens instead is that the amygdala, which is non-verbal, processes and stores the memory as pure instinct and emotion.
Due to the strong encoding of the negative emotions from the amygdala, when those memories pop into your head, you will respond with often fearful emotions as if it were really happening, with little to no control over your reactions. This also explains why flashbacks can cause someone to go into fight, flight or freeze mode, without processing what is happening, as these are instinctive survival mechanisms.
This is why flashbacks feel so real – because your brain thinks they are. The amygdala may pick out certain aspects of the memory to respond negatively to, hence why seeing something or smelling something can trigger you – even if it’s out of context. Your brain cannot distinguish the context of the event.
As an example, if you were violently attacked and the perpetrator had a lion tattoo, your brain may remember this lion tattoo as a singular traumatic memory and associate lion tattoos with intense fear and anguish. When you see someone with a lion tattoo, this could trigger that memory and cause you to have a flashback, taking you right back to the attack. Seeing the lion tattoo could be enough to make you feel all the emotions you felt at the time of the attack, even if the tattoo is on a different person and the context in which you’re seeing it is entirely different and not akin to the actual event.
Flashbacks are a normal response to traumatic experiences, and that’s why so many people who experience a traumatising event develop post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or complex PTSD. That being said, coping strategies are essential to prevent flashbacks from interrupting your everyday life.
How to manage flashbacks
Sometimes, time can help you deal with flashbacks as your brain slowly processes what happened. However, professional help may be required to help you process the event and try to move on. It’s important to remember that whilst you may always be impacted by the traumatic event (even without the memory of it) it doesn’t have to dominate your life forever. It is possible to get the flashbacks under control. There are a few methods that can help with this.
Write/recite the event
The last thing you might want to do after a traumatic experience is to go over it, but this is often the first and most crucial step in dealing with the fallout. As mentioned, traumatic events can affect your memory, causing some bits to be ‘forgotten’ and split into different memories, making it hard to recall the entire event. By writing or reciting the event to someone (a trauma-informed therapist is best), you can start to piece together all your scattered memories, a bit like a puzzle.
You can go through each segment bit by bit, filling in any blanks, eventually helping you to process all the parts as one, singular memory.
Learn your triggers
Knowing what triggers a flashback is crucial so that you can better understand your flashbacks and potentially remove yourself from situations that might trigger them, therefore helping you to prevent flashbacks. When you have a flashback, try and trace back to see what caused it. It could be a sight, a smell, or even a taste. Write down your triggers and see if there are ways you can avoid them. For example, if your trigger is the sight of an operating theatre, try to avoid medical programmes on TV.
This won’t work for every type of trigger, so it’s important to try and work through your triggers and tackle them head on. Exposure therapy can help with this, and so can cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which changes how you perceive things, including traumatic memories.
During a flashback, grounding can help you to separate the flashback and past experience from reality. You can try touching something, reciting your name and the date, or counting things (such as five things you can see) to remind yourself that you’re in the present and not at the traumatic event. Some people find that carrying an anchoring or grounding object with them in case of future flashbacks can help to keep them in the present, such as by rubbing it or smelling it. Others find that by focusing on their five senses (something you can see, something can taste, something you can hear, something you can smell, and something you can touch) can help to stop flashbacks from progressing further.
Get help for flashbacks with The Awareness Centre
The above techniques can help you to manage your flashbacks, but professional support can often be the best way to help you navigate your emotions and cope with your trauma.
At The Awareness Centre, we have a number of mental health professionals who can help you if you’re having flashbacks or if you have post-traumatic stress disorder. Please get in touch with us to find out more about the services we offer and how we can help you.