Whenever post-traumatic stress disorder is represented in movies, the protagonist will be brought back into the moment that traumatized them. Usually, this is symbolized with a sudden visual in the middle of a normal day’s events. Other times, it may occur after experiencing something triggering. How accurate is this representation of PTSD flashbacks?
What is a Flashback?
First, it’s important to understand what a flashback is. These hallmark symptoms of PTSD are defined as intense episodes in which a person relives a traumatic experience. Sufferers are fully awake during this, and typically cannot tell the difference between the “waking nightmare” and reality. That disconnection from one’s own body and surroundings is called dissociation.
You can think of a flashback as a vivid, all-consuming sensory experience. It is both involuntary and intrusive. Initially, flashbacks cannot be controlled and are accompanied by fear, increased heart rate, and panic attacks.
As an example, consider the Fourth of July. While this holiday is fun for most, it’s deeply upsetting for many former members of the Armed Forces. Why? Fireworks are a major trigger of flashbacks for combat veterans – the unexpected sound of explosions instantly brings them back to the battlefield. “It’s not that I don’t want people to have fun,” said Kevin Rhoades, a Marine veteran with PTSD, in an interview. “On the Fourth of July, I’m going to pop my own fireworks. But when you get woken up at two, three o’clock in the morning, it brings back those memories.”
How PTSD Flashbacks Happen in the Brain
In a normal scenario, there are two structures responsible for committing events to memory. The amygdala handles emotional memories, especially those related to fear and threat recognition. The hippocampus serves as a catalog of all the experience’s details – what happened, where, and under what circumstances. In a traumatic scenario, these structures are disrupted. The amygdala flips into overactivation, while the hippocampus’s activity is suppressed.
As a result, your memory becomes jumbled. You have strong feelings about what happened, but may not be able to clearly lay out all the details. This means that certain “signs” of danger are clear (like smells and sounds). You will react strongly to them in the future. However, since your hippocampal activity was suppressed, you won’t have much context about why you’re upset. That lack of memory makes it feel like the traumatic event is happening all over again – a flashback.
Trauma Treatment Alleviates Symptoms
Fortunately, advancements in trauma treatment have uncovered paths to recovery for those suffering from PTSD flashbacks. Understanding the mechanisms behind these unwanted memories can provide a path to healing. Once a person begins working with a clinician, they will identify the places, people, and things that catalyze their flashbacks. From this point, the therapist provides grounding techniques for responding to triggers. This approach offers sustained recovery from post-traumatic stress.
A Note About Trauma
While most people associate PTSD with military service, we want to remind you that trauma can – and does – happen to anyone. Witnessing a violent event is enough to trigger flashbacks. Examples of commonplace traumas include:
- Loss of a loved one
- Witnessing violence
- Living through a natural disaster
- Extreme poverty
- Community violence
- Sexual assault
- Car accidents
- Abuse (verbal, physical, or emotional)
- Neglect in childhood
- Life-threatening injury or illness
- Household dysfunction in childhood
As you can see, there are many events – especially in one’s formative years – that can affect our daily lives. If you find yourself struggling, don’t write off your problems as “not a big enough to warrant treatment.” Any history of trauma needs to be addressed. You deserve to be happy.
At Lakeside-Milam, we offer a proven approach to trauma treatment. We help people to work through their pasts through a blend of individual and group therapies. To learn more about our outpatient mental health program, please contact our admissions team.