Posts Tagged ‘flashbacks’


Memory Fragments and Reassociation

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Screenshot 2016-02-19 10.57.59

Many of the people I see already have memories of trauma; they just don’t know that they do. Or they have discounted their experiences as traumatic because they may think that PTSD is just for veterans or “people who had it worse than they do”.

To understand how traumatic memories are processed, let us first look at a normal memory. Normal memories consist of three basic components:

the narrative, context or story of what is happening (I am walking to grandmother’s house to take her some baked goods)

sensory memories (I can see the trees in the wood, feel my cape on my back, smell the flowers as I go by)

  • feeling state (I am a little worried about rumors of the big, bad wolf in the forest)

The younger we are when we lay down memories, the less likely we are to have component 1, the story of what is happening. We can only have a story if we are old enough to be verbal and have words to describe what is happening; this is why we don’t really have clear memories until we are a few years old.

When we are heavily traumatized, especially as children our memories get divided up into their components. One hypothesis is that the brain does this so it can keep functioning and not ‘crash’ or become physically injured.

Let’s say Red Riding Hood becomes traumatized by her encounter with the wolf.   Her three components get scattered and the associations between them are lost.

So when RRH comes to therapy she might say something like: “I see a picture of a wolf in the woods in my mind, but that doesn’t feel like a real memory (or my memory), and it doesn’t make sense to me. What was I doing there? Did that even happen?”.

This is a memory fragment.

Our brain doesn’t register memories as ‘real’ unless they have all 3 components.

Alternatively, RRH could come in and say that she is smelling forest smells when she is not in the forest and that those events are filled with a feeling of foreboding.

Or she could just come in in a state of panic and anxiety and not know why she is feeling that way.

Or she can have all three of these symptoms and not know that they are at all associated with each other.

The brain will only reassociate these dissociated fragments when it feels safe enough to heal. And this will happen spontaneously.

This is where therapy can be so helpful. Reassociation often happens when people are talking about a memory fragment. The pairing of the feeling state with either a sensory memory or the narrative (the knowing) of what happened is the first sign that this memory is REAL.

The body does not and cannot lie. You might imagine a picture in your head, even a very sad picture, but if it is not personal to you, chances are you will not cry (unless you are a trained actor). And the feelings in the body are very smart. We can distinguish feelings that feel like they are related to us versus feelings that are related to compassion, or someone else.

So, in healing from trauma, there is a process of acceptance and reassociation. All the images, sensory information, and memory fragments (no matter how disturbing or bizarre) will need to be welcomed back, accepted and organized along with emotions. Then we can heal and know our true story. We can finally leave the past in the past and move forward. Even the worst experiences can be processed, integrated and become ‘just another memory’. This process is what healing from PTSD looks like.

 




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.




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