What Are Flashbacks?
The human brain has a tremendous capacity for storing memories. However, unlike an organized library shelf, where books on the same topic sit side by side, our brains encode long-term memories throughout the cortex. They remain intricately linked to our five senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste and touch.
Flashbacks are powerful recollections of past traumatic events. The DSM 5, a go-to manual on psychological disorders, defines trauma as an experience, actual or threatened, of death, serious injury, or sexual violence. Sometimes, people have subjective experiences that do not meet the official criterion. Regardless, your incident remains worthy of processing through therapy.
With flashbacks, a sensory event triggers memories from various parts of the brain that stored it. For example, the sound of fireworks or a car backfiring can remind a soldier of gunfire. Or the smell of cologne can bring back memories of a sexual assault. They often occur without warning, causing a flood of distress. It pulls you back into the frightening experience and can leave you feeling unsafe, unsettled, overwhelmed, and just as traumatized as before. If you suffer from flashbacks, then psychotherapy is a proven way to find relief.
Treating Flashbacks With CBT
Psychotherapists can deploy many treatments to help you manage Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) symptoms, like flashbacks. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), is one of the most effective. During the early part of your therapy, a trained therapist will use the trauma as a focal point to narrow down what triggers your flashback. They will then work with you to replace unhelpful thoughts corresponding to the flashback. Examples include, “I am powerless”, “It was my fault”, or “something bad could happen at any time”. We work to introduce positive thinking to balance and outweigh negative thought patterns.
As part of your treatment, your therapist may also use Exposure Therapy to acclimatize your tolerance to the offending memory. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing works in a similar fashion, where you direct your attention to a sound or visual place in the room while recalling memories. Theoretically, the distraction reprograms your reaction to memories.
Regardless of specific modalities, a good trauma-informed therapist will help you to visualize the dynamic between your thoughts, emotions and behaviour. You will train your brain to redirect the cascading sequence so it does not culminate in flashbacks. Where needed, your therapist will also inject additional techniques to help you cope with stress, like mindfulness training and visualization.
Mindfulness is the art of being present in the moment. It is where you attentively focus all your senses on what is going on in your present surroundings. Because flashbacks require a sensory trigger, your therapist can help you with mindfulness practise and use it to fend off the impact of your flashback. For example, if your memory is triggered by a sound, you can deploy all your other senses to place yourself in your current environment. In this case, the tactile experience of stamping your feet can ground and assure you that you remain physically far away from the place of the original trauma.
Similarly, your therapist will help you understand how trauma impacts your nervous system. Panic and fear cause our breathing patterns to become shallow and erratic. The lack of oxygen ends up exacerbating the stress. Deep breathing exercises support you through a flashback. The act of taking deeper and slower breaths will send signals to your brain and body that everything is okay. This helps you heal both mind and body.
Medications for PTSD and Flashbacks
Physicians often prescribe medications to treat the symptoms of flashbacks. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) regulate serotonin levels, a naturally occurring mood-regulating neurotransmitter. These medications prevent nerve cells from absorbing it and are best used to manage symptoms of anxiety and low mood. Research proves they are also highly effective for treating flashbacks when combined with psychotherapy.
Trauma is one of the most tragic aspects of the human condition. Nobody deserves it, yet many suffer as a result of it. It is perfectly reasonable for anyone who has experienced it to want to move on, immediately. However, your body must undergo a process to deal with the impact. Instead of letting your flashbacks control you, reverse the dynamic by honouring yourself. You have survived and are strong and resilient because you have done so. Give yourself permission to acknowledge and validate the impact it has had on your life. And know that asking for professional support is a sign of strength, not weakness.
About The Authors
Laura Devlin is a Registered Psychological Associate with over 10 years of experience, and a managing director at Beaches Therapy Group. We have helped numerous clients successfully manage their PTSD symptoms, including flashbacks. Contact us to discover how our therapy sessions are a worthwhile investment towards happy and healthy relationships.
Isabella Bergagnini is an intern at Beaches Therapy Group with a B.A. in Psychology. She is looking forward to graduating in August 2020 from the Master’s Level of Psychology Program at Adler Graduate School (M.Psy Candidate). Her internship hours contribute towards her goal to register with the College of Psychologists.