Flashbacks

A young girl sitting on a window ledge looks out, lost in thoughtFlashbacks are sudden, involuntary, and vivid memories of past personal experiences. In many cases, these powerful memories are closely linked with traumatic events.

Understanding Flashbacks

Flashbacks are psychological phenomena during which a person relives a past event or fragments of a past experience. They generally occur involuntarily, abruptly entering an individual’s awareness without the aid of premeditation or conscious attempts to recall the memory, and they may be intense. As flashbacks involve past events, they may have no relevance to what is happening at present.

While people often associate flashbacks solely with visual information, other senses such as smell, taste, touch, and hearing may also be actively involved in the episode. Flashbacks can elicit a wide array of emotions. Some flashbacks are so intense, it may become difficult to distinguish memory from current life events.

Conversely, some flashbacks may be devoid of visual and auditory memory and may lead a person to experience feelings of panic, helplessness, numbness, or entrapment. Many individuals report the onset of flashbacks after surviving a near-death experience or another traumatic situation.

Who Might Be Affected by Flashbacks?

Those with posttraumatic stress may experience flashbacks as a recurring symptom of the condition. Posttraumatic stress may develop after exposure to military combat, sexual abuse, physical abuse, emotional abuse, or potentially fatal events such as a car crash.

In addition to PTSD, other mental health conditions such as depression, acute stress, and obsessions and compulsions are associated with the development of flashbacks. The use of some drugs—such as lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD)—may also increase the likelihood of a flashback occurring.

Flashbacks and Mental Health

Flashbacks may have a profound impact on a person’s mental health. Due to the emotionally charged and uncontrollable nature of flashbacks, affected individuals may find their ability to carry out everyday activities is diminished. Loss of function may lead to a decrease in quality of life, which in turn may be a contributing factor for mood issues such as anxiety and depression.

The psychological distress caused by flashbacks may be more immediate. Feelings of helplessness, powerlessness, confusion, and disorientation may often follow a flashback. An individual may become caught up in the flashback and scream, cry, show fear, or exhibit other behaviors that might lead to shame and embarrassment after the episode.  These behaviors may damage self-esteem and create tension in interpersonal relationships.

The Science behind Flashbacks

While the exact causes of flashbacks have not yet been identified, neuroscience and neuroimaging investigations have revealed information about how they occur. Neural scans of individuals experiencing flashbacks show that specific brain areas, such as the mid-occipital lobe, primary motor cortex, supplementary motor area, and regions of the dorsal stream, are highly activated during the episode. Current research also suggests that factors such as stress, food deprivation, and temporal lobe seizures may play an important role in the onset of flashbacks.

Coping with Flashbacks

Some people may isolate themselves emotionally in order to survive the aftermath of a highly traumatic events. However these survivors may find that the previously isolated thoughts, emotions, and body sensations are still expressed in the present—sometimes many years after the conclusion of the crisis. At times, it may even seem as if intrusive memories and sensations come from nowhere.

By working with a qualified therapist, many people develop an increased ability to cope effectively with flashbacks. In addition to providing further education on flashbacks, a therapist can help a person in treatment gradually unearth and address the source of the trauma—ensuring that previously repressed thoughts, emotions, sensations, and actions are expressed in a safe, healthy environment.

A therapist can also teach those in treatment various coping mechanisms. These may include:

  • Recognizing the flashback is not an actual event
  • Remembering escape is possible
  • Remembering to breathe
  • Actively using five senses to reorient oneself
  • Recovering sufficiently from the flashback
  • Being patient with oneself throughout the experience

Researchers are currently exploring the possibility of using visuospatial tasks as “cognitive vaccines” in order to help prevent traumatic flashbacks.

References:

  1. Brewin, C. R., Gregory, J. D., Lipton, M. & Burgess, N. (2010). Intrusive images in psychological disorders: Characteristics, neural mechanisms, and treatment implications. Psychological Review, 117(1), 210-232. Retrieved from http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rev/117/1/210.pdf&uid=2009-25263-005&db=PA
  2. Fernando, K. & Medlicott, L. (2009). My shield will protect me against the ants: Treatment of ptsd in a client with an intellectual disability. Journal of Intellectual & Developmental Disability, 34(2), 187-192.
  3. Holmes, E. A., James, E. L., Kilford, E. J. & Deeprose, C. (2010). Key steps in developing a cognitive vaccine against traumatic flashbacks: Visuospatial tetris vs verbal pub quiz. PLoS ONE, 5(11), 1-9. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0013706
  4. Lowinger, R. J. & Rombom, H. (2012). The effectiveness of cognitive behavioral therapy for ptsd in new york city transit workers: A preliminary evaluation. North American Journal of Psychology, 14(3), 471-484.
  5. Pile, V., Barnhofer, T. & Wild, J. (2015). Updating versus exposure to prevent consolidation of conditioned fear. PLoS ONE, 10(4), e0122971. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0122971
  6. Williams, A. D. & Moulds, M. L. (2007). An investigation of the cognitive and experiential features of intrusive memories in depression. Memory, 15(8), 912-920.

Last Updated: 11-24-2015

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