Posts Tagged ‘amygdala’


Flashbacks, PTSD and You

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Of all the PTSD symptoms, flashbacks are some of the worst. They interrupt our sleep and our waking hours without warning. They chew us up and spit us out leaving us spent, exhausted and retraumatized. Flashbacks can really hurt us as they activate our amygdala, the crisis response center in the brain, and throw our entire nervous system into high gear. In the worst cases, we can momentarily lose touch with reality and become totally engulfed in a full body replay of traumatic events. As we heal from PTSD, it becomes essential to get a grasp on flashbacks and slowly eliminate them.

What are flashbacks?

Flashbacks are an involuntary and intrusive experience of a memory. Flashbacks can involve any combination of the senses: visual, auditory, kinesthetic (or feeling state), taste and smell. I have found that many people with traumatic pasts enter flashbacks regularly without knowing they are having one. Movie type flashbacks are obvious; for example a soldier experiencing himself back on the battle field. But flashbacks can also be, for example, an overpowering feeling of helplessness and abandonment in the present that is not in proportion to a current event.

I have come to see flashbacks as part of the body/mind’s attempt to heal. Persistent flashbacks are like a telephone ringing, or someone knocking at your door. They are your unconscious mind demanding that traumatic events in your past be dealt with and healed. Like a persistent visitor, the knocking will only get louder and more in your face if you don’t answer the door.

How can I get rid of flashbacks?

There is only one way to really get rid of flashbacks for good, and that is to dive deep into your mind and heal your PTSD by dealing with the traumatic events that caused your injury. I realize that this is not the answer that many want to hear. It is a bit like saying the only way out of your burning house is to walk straight through the fire. In the meantime there are things you can do to lessen the severity of flashbacks and help those around you cope with them:

– Learn your triggers and inform those closest to you. The more you know what causes flashbacks, the more control you have over them. Keep a log or map them, either mentally or on paper.

– Develop a twice-daily practice of invoking the relaxation response and by that I mean something like yoga, tai chi, progressive relaxation or centering prayer. Not drugs, TV or other escapist types of activities. These techniques have been shown to improve recovery time from flashbacks and decrease their intensity and frequency.

– Strengthen your mind! Flashbacks are a time disorder. Your mind gets sucked back to the time and place of injury. Don’t let that happen! Learn to stay in the present moment through meditation and grounding exercises. That way, when a flashback hits you can stay present and not get swept away in the memory.

– Talk about it. Ever since Freud discovered the “talking cure” we have known there is something magical about telling others about our difficulties. The more we process verbally, the less grip these events and memories have over us. If your memories are too intense to share with loved ones find a good trauma therapist (see my blog on finding a good trauma therapist!).

– Do not blame your self. Shame and flashbacks go hand in hand, and are often a part of the trauma being re-experienced. Be gentle with yourself and realize that this is a process that will take time to resolve.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. PTSD can be healed. That means you will reach a point where flashbacks are no longer a part of your life, at least not in such a pernicious form. We may always have unpleasant memories but when trauma is resolved, they no longer have the power to hurt us.

Blessings on your journey of healing.




Research is in: Meditation works!

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Meditation appears to produce enduring changes in emotional processing in the brain

The good folks at Mass General Hospital (MGH), Boston University and other research institutions have shown conclusively in a research setting, for the first time, that an 8-week meditation program affected brain function in a positive way even when the subjects were not meditating.  The amygdala (our crisis response center) was positively affected by their modest practice.  Highly recommended reading!(Click on the title to go right to the article.)




Help! My Partner Has PTSD: Seven Strategies for Coping as a Couple

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If you are partnered with someone who is struggling with PTSD or you both have PTSD, you know your life together is challenged in some very profound ways. Fights can be explosive, resulting in fireworks or endless stony silences. Misunderstandings can abound. The non-PTSD partner may start to develop secondary or vicarious trauma just being exposed to the intense PTSD in their loved one. Life can start to feel very unpredictable, like threading one’s way through a minefield. It can be easy to start walking on eggshells or conversely getting fed up and moving away from each other. Love and connection are harder to feel. PTSD challenges couples like nothing else. Waiting it out doesn’t work and neither do threats or force. What to do?

1) Educate yourself. PTSD is a whole body process that affects every aspect of the human being. It has predictable stages (see my book, The Trauma Tool Kit) and effects on the person and the partnership. You would educate yourself if your partner had a major medical illness, right? This is no different. Forewarned is forearmed, as the saying goes.

2) Set some clear boundaries around behavior in the relationship. Just because someone is suffering does not give them the right to be abusive. The anger/fear response is hardwired and amped up in full-blown PTSD. Often people with PTSD dissociate when they are angry and don’t even realize what they are doing. Sit down with your partner, ahead of time, and set rules for what is tolerable and allowed in the relationship and what is not. These can change over time depending on where each of you and your life circumstance. For instance, shouting might be OK if it is just the two of you, but if you have a child in the next room, shouting can become off-limits behavior. Violence or abusive behavior is never to be tolerated under any circumstances.

3) Learn to take time-outs, or, as we call them around here, amygdala resets. Your amygdala is the part of your brain that is the crisis response center. When it goes on red alert it highjacks the brain to deal with threats, whether real or perceived. With the amygdala in the red zone, people are very close to being out of control or they are out of control. Taking 20 minutes, the average reset time, to reboot the brain for both parties, will lend itself to a more peaceful and safe outcome. Either partner should be able to call time-out at any time. Be sure to make it a time out not an end to the discussion. Always come back together to resolve the issue at hand. If it is just too explosive get into couple’s therapy. Which reminds me…

4) Get into couple’s therapy! More research is showing that couple’s treatment can be very helpful in coping with PTSD. Individual therapy is great, but couple’s issues are complex and require their own special interventions. Not all therapists like to do or can do couples’ work well. Look for someone with previous education and training or with a degree in family work, who also is knowledgeable about trauma. Even a few sessions can make a tremendous difference. If you are worried about money (and who isn’t these days) know that there are many organizations that provide these services for low and no cost. If you are a veteran or married to one, you may be even more eligible. If money is still on your mind, remind yourself of how expensive divorces are, as long as you both shall live.

5) Study triggers together. Big rages and emotional swings are almost always brought on by triggers to PTSD. A trigger can be anything at all. I worked with a couple whose partner was an Iraq war veteran. He became severely triggered one afternoon by three events happening in close succession: he saw someone in the parking lot of the restaurant with camouflage clothing; he got a freeze headache, and he got closed in when more people joined his table. The clothing and feeling of being trapped are obvious triggers, the freeze headaches not so much. But it turned out he’d had a number of them in the desert, and it had become a trigger. The more triggers you figure out together, in the calm times, the easier it becomes to avoid setting the PTSD partner off, or resolving it more quickly if you do. This is an empowering step that often brings couples closer together. In this case, the couple avoided, what would have been in the past an angry meltdown on his part. His partner then could respond with concern and compassion.

6) Make healing PTSD a joint task in your relationship. Strategize together. Discuss medical options. Open up lines of trust and communication. Often a spouse or partner is the only person to tell one’s story to with complete safety and trust. Don’t avoid the issues just because your partner wants to. Avoidance is part of the disease of PTSD. Don’t collude with it.

7) Join together in mental and physical fitness. Develop couple’s routines around calming down the mind and body on a daily basis. This could be through prayer, meditation, tai chi, yoga, or long walks. The evidence is pouring in daily about the beneficial effects of calming techniques on PTSD. You will both be better for it!




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