Experience of flashback and why it occurs

Anyone who has been through a very traumatic experience can have a flashback. Soldiers who have fought in wars like Vietnam war experience what is called a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) due to the extreme stress of a war. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) include nightmares, intrusive thoughts, insomnia, panic attacks and depression. Most importantly, when suffering from PTSD, they experience flashbacks. Flashbacks are like having a scary nightmare but very often this happens when you are awake. They are involuntary and uncontrollable and can come on at any unexpected time. You are reliving the traumatic event and flashbacks are very much real world with sensations and images. In terms of the brain the amygdala which is responsible for emotional memory is overactive due to trauma’s experienced and hence the flashback. The amygdala suppresses the hippocampus in the brain which is more focused on logical memory and takes over during a flashback. For example, the above image depicts the difference between a healthy brain and that of one suffering from PTSD. The amygdala in the real world is overactive and when it perceives any threat it goes back to the time when this traumatic event occurred with the flashback and helps you survive with the fight or flight response of sweating, panic, fear and anxiety. After some time the amygdala will calm down and the hippocampus will take over and you will realize that you were experiencing a flashback.

Flashbacks can be of different kinds. One can have an awareness flashback of the actual abuse or trauma that has happened. It could also be a body memory flashback when one can actually feel the trauma or abuse happening once again in one’s body. One can also have an emotional flashback as an episode of intense fear, confusion and extreme anxiety. They could also be flashbacks of reliving the trauma/abuse. For example, the above image depicts a young girl who still feels the trauma in her flashback and says “I can still feel it”. One may be in the present but one goes back in time to relive the trauma. For example survivors of wars can actually hear the sound of gun fire, see the flashes of ammunition exploding, feel themselves sweating and their hearts palpitating with fear.

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Flashbacks can be an extremely disturbing experience to those who are experiencing them. A person needs special help to cope with the same. Coping strategies can be varied. One of the most common techniques suggested is to stay calm and take a few deep breaths. For example, the image above depicts the lady taking deep breaths when experiencing a flashback. This will reduce the feeling of panic and lower your heart rate. Other techniques like yoga and meditation have also shown some beneficial effects. A technique of systematic muscle relaxation may be used as the entire body is tense and relaxing sets of muscles slowly will help reduce built up tension.

A technique called boundaries is used very often. When you experience a flashback you are in the midst of something very traumatic. So something as simple as wrapping a blanket around you or sitting in a small enclosed space will make you realize where you are and make you feel more safe. A technique called grounding is also used to bring you back to the here and now. It involves using all five senses to bring you to current reality. You look at the sky, hear the birds chirping, taste a lovely sweet, touch your pet cat and smell the fragrance of a lovely perfume. Using all your five senses will pull you away from the flashback and ground you in your present state where you will feel safe. You may move, jump and stretch also. Counting also can be used to keep you alert and grounded. Rubbing the pressure points on each of your hands and feet will also relax and ground you. Sometimes one may need help and support and one should confide in the people around you that you experiencing a flashback.

At times if the flashbacks are very severe it may be necessary to seek professional help of a psychologist. A psychologist will help with the issues or triggers that are causing the flashbacks and make you more aware of the same so that you can cope better. The psychologist will also delve into the root cause of the flashback which is the traumatic event. This traumatic event needs to be dealt with using various psychological therapies. The psychologist may also suggest a self help group where by sharing experiences, your trauma may reduce and consequently reduce experiencing the flashbacks.

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