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A flashback, or involuntary recurrent memory, is a psychological phenomenon in which an individual has a sudden, usually powerful, re-experiencing of a past experience, or elements of a past experience. These experiences can be happy, sad, exciting, or any other emotion one can consider.



The term is used particularly when the memory is recalled involuntarily, and/or when it is so intense that the person "relives" the experience, unable to fully recognize it as memory, and not something that is happening in "real time".

In general, flashbacks last a few seconds or minutes, and vary in their intensity and frequency. Furthermore, the continuity of the flashback can vary from instance to instance.

There are flashbacks that tell as a continuous

story in a coherent, chronological manner (like a movie), while others are divided into segments, without a coherent sequence, and include only a small part of the original event.

For trauma victims, flashbacks can be very frightening, and are usually directly related to the traumatic events. Specific feelings, loud noises, tiredness, and stressful situations can stimulate flashbacks in a victim (triggers). Sometimes, the flashbacks can become a full-blown anxiety attack.

Flashbacks are one of the most conspicuous identifying traits of PTSD, and cause great suffering for the victims who experience them. Treating flashbacks is part of the comprehensive, systemic therapy offered to trauma victims.

A significant percentage of adults who suffered ongoing abuse or neglect in childhood suffer from Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or C-PTSD. One of the most difficult features of this type of PTSD is extreme susceptibility to painful emotional flashbacks.

Emotional flashbacks are sudden and often prolonged regressions ('amygdala hijackings') to the frightening circumstances of childhood. They are typically experienced as intense and confusing episodes of fear and/or despair - or as sorrowful and/or enraged reactions to this fear and despair.

Emotional flashbacks are especially painful, because the inner critic typically overlays them with toxic shame, inhibiting the individual from seeking comfort and support, isolating her in an overwhelming and humiliating sense of defectiveness.

Because most emotional flashbacks do not have a visual or memory component to them, the triggered individual rarely realizes that she is re-experiencing a traumatic time from childhood.

Flashbacks can lead to reactive defenses as misfirings of their fight, flight, freeze, or fawn responses. These misfirings then, cause

dysfunctional warding off of feelings in four different ways:
  • Fighting, or over-asserting one's self with others in narcissistic and entitled ways, such as misusing power, or promoting excessive self-interest.

  • Fleeing obsessive-compulsively into activities, such as workaholism, sex and love addiction, or substance abuse (uppers).

  • Freezing in numbing, dissociative ways, such as sleeping excessively, over-fantasizing, or tuning out with TV or medications (downers).

  • Fawning in self-abandoning and obsequious codependent relating.

The Fawn response to trauma is delineated in my earlier article on "Codependency and Trauma", in The East Bay Therapist, Jan/Feb '03. Thanks to Pete Walker, M.A., Psychologist for much of the above info.



For Tips on Managing Flashbacks, visit our Grounding Techniques and Relaxation page.

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