Symptom Explainers: Flashbacks

What are Flashbacks?

Flashbacks are a psychological phenomena during which a person relives a past event or fragments of a past experience. They generally occur involuntarily, abruptly entering a person’s minds without the aid of premeditation or conscious attempts to recall the memory. They can be extremely intense. As flashbacks involve past events, they may have no relevance to what is happening at present.

They do often occur after a person experiences “triggering” stimuli. Triggers are generally in trauma survivors something that reminds them of trauma. With sexual abuse, sexual things and touch are super common, but it can be almost anything. Examples: a car model, a song, smell of a certain perfume, taste of certain food, a phrase, showers or small spaces.

Overwhelming sensory states, like a crowded loud place, can also trigger flashbacks. Extreme reminders of an emotional state can also trigger flashbacks. An example might be if you felt horribly out of control during abuse feeling similarly could trigger a flashback as well.

Types of Flashbacks: 

  • Emotional Flashbacks: Feeling as if you are mentally and emotional back into a traumatic event. This can be distressing enough to disrupt everything if you have a panic attack or dissociative episodes. Another thing that may happen is acting behaviour like you did during trauma.  This can be like returning to a state of submit or freeze (as in flight/fight/freeze/submit dynamic). Emotional flashbacks can often be tied intrinsically to somatic flashbacks (body memories) as emotions are felt in the body, like stomach pain from fear or sweating from anxiety. 
  • Somatic Flashbacks/Body Memories: This is feeling the same things in the body as you did during trauma. This is often very distracting like any sudden pain would be. This too can trigger behaviours used to cope during the time, can disrupt connection with the current situation. These can even cause extreme reactions like vomiting or passing out. Body memories can’t really be experienced without an emotional flashback happening at the same time.
  • Visual Flashbacks: This is the experience of the event with visual stimuli. This can be disjointed or a strict narrative. This can be like being back in your body (1st person view) or experience it dissociatively (3rd person). This often disrupts what you are doing and can trigger panic attacks or dissociative episodes. This again generally includes emotional flashback symptoms too. Some people can tell they are not back in the moment and see a mix of flashbacks and current situations. It can also be experienced as a complete disconnect and lose the ability to recognize the current location/time. Symptoms of panic attacks are common but not required, numbing out can also be an effect. 
  • Auditory Flashbacks: Experiencing the same sounds you experienced during the moment. If experienced alone this can mimic hallucinations or intrusive thoughts. These also often overlap with other experiences of flashbacks. 

All of these kinds of flashbacks can completely disrupt the person’s life, or can be experienced in a way that is covert to the people around you but is still distressing.

The way flashbacks can disrupt a person’s ability to operate at the moment they are in. Most commonly this is connected to dissociative episodes, symptoms of panic attacks, inducing crying and a person becoming unaware of when and where they are.

Another way it is disruptive is when a person experiences flashbacks of all of these kinds they may experience a shift to the mental state and even behaviours a person used during trauma. An example of this might be if someone feels the need to please and do whatever the people around them say, going completely limp, freezing or running away.

Flashbacks are a highly character symptoms of trauma based disorder. It’s considerd kind of intrusive symptom in the DSM under PTSD/C-PTSD. It’s also highly common in trauma survivours who might not meet full symptoms of ptsd.

~Admin 2


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