Forging a Deeper Understanding of Flashbacks: Part I

I believe that experienced trauma therapists (Think: PTSD specialists) possess an approximate, rather cognitive understanding of flashbacks. On the other hand, I am certain that dissociative disorders therapists (Think: DID specialists) have a much richer grasp of flashbacks, but I don’t think that their richer grasp adds up to a truly rigorous understanding. Not yet, anyway. I guess what I’m saying is that we all probably know less about flashbacks than we think we do. And much of what we do know consists of the hard-won clinical insights of individual therapists — insights that are seldom written down (and thereby made available for general discussion)..

Let’s try to forge a better understanding of flashbacks. This is obviously a very difficult task or it would already have been accomplished. By the way, I, too, find this task to be very difficult.

The Stress of Major Life Events

When I was a graduate student in the early 70s, the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale was quite popular (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). The scale consists of 43 life events, each with an assigned stress value. The most stressful event is Death of a Spouse (with a stress value of 100). Strikingly, even positive events are stressful (e.g., raises in salary, outstanding personal achievements, vacations). Holmes and Rahe reported that increased stress was associated with an increased incidence of illness.

At about the same time, Mardi Horowitz was studying the intrusive thoughts that follow major life event. Horowitz found that major life events, whether positive or negative, were always followed by intrusive thoughts (about the event). According to Horowitz’ model, these thoughts keep intruding into conscious awareness until the person has cognitively assimilated the event and, ideally, fully accomodated to the event’s personal implications.

Sound familiar? But remember, we’re not talking trauma here. Just major life events. These intrusive thoughts are not flashbacks. They are simply automatic, unbidden thoughts about a big change in your life. Think about: Winning the Lotto. Guaranteed to produce intrusive thoughts for quite a while!

Intrusive thoughts after a major life event are absolutely normal. Major life events always have implications for oneself, one’s future, and one’s place in the world. Consequently, each of these understandings about self and world (and, sometimes, a whole lot more) needs to be recalibrated. Horowitz called this process of recalibration the completion principle. The essential idea here is that intrusive thoughts continue to recur until the person finishes accomodating to the major life event.

Note: The Janet scholars in our midst will note a distinct affinity between Horowitz’ ideas and Janet’s ideas about realization and personification.

In any case, many clinicians have applied Horowitz’ model to flashbacks. Interestingly, many clinicians come to this idea on their own — without having read Horowitz. After all, Horowitz’ model is a very sensible and appealing idea. But, I’m not sure how well the model applies to flashbacks. Maybe yes, maybe no. I’m still on the fence about this one.

The Difference Between Intrusive Thoughts and Flashbacks

Let’s get one thing out of the way. The kinds of intrusive thoughts that follow a major life event are absolutely normal. In fact, I think evolution has shaped the functioning of our neocortex such that Horowitz’ completion principle is built into us. But — there are, indeed, many kinds of abnormal intrusive thoughts.

Good places to find people suffering from abnormal intrusive thoughts? People with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Schizophrenics. People with anorexia nervosa.

In this section of my blog post, however, I am not talking about OCDs, schizophrenics, or anorexics. I am talking about you and me and our normal reaction to major life events — automatic, unbidden, intrusive thoughts about that event until we come to terms with it.

OK. How are flashbacks different from these normal intrusive thoughts? First of all, flashbacks are not thoughts. They are perceptual (imagistic, sensory, and emotional). Thoughts involve both language and awareness-of-the-self-that-is-thinking. Both of these may be lost during flashbacks.

With normal intrusive thoughts, there is always a clear connection between self and the intrusive thought. We own that thought and accept it as mine. The ‘work’ that needs to be done with intrusive thoughts is to fit that major life event — and its personal implications — into our understanding of ourselves and our world. Said differently, we need to accommodate our existing narrative (i.e., our understanding) of self and world to this new information. As we sometimes say about a new idea, “I need some time to wrap my mind around this.”

Flashbacks Exist Outside Language

As humans, we have language and a human consciousness. We live in a narrative world. Our very human existence is inseparable from language. Humans live a narrative existence. That is what it is to be human. We live within language. Flashbacks lie outside language. They are perceptual — imagistic, sensory, and emotional.

Psychologists and philosophers occasionally talk about “raw, sensory data.” But the notion of raw, sensory data is largely a fiction. We don’t perceive raw sensations. What we perceive is already, preconsciously, sorted/arranged into some familiar object or category. We perceive objects and categories — not raw sensations.

I apologize for getting all philosophical on you, but I think this particular point is crucial for understanding flashbacks. Intrusive thoughts come to us already formed into language. Flashbacks don’t. Flashbacks are fragmented images, sensations, and affects. In order for a flashback to finally stop, we must bring those fragments into language. We must develop a narrative of what happened.

OK, this is a good stopping point. What do you think about flashbacks existing outside language?

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40 Responses to Forging a Deeper Understanding of Flashbacks: Part I

  1. Lynette Danylchuk says:

    Paul,
    I like your thinking. I do think most flashbacks exist outside of language, although many flashbacks include words being said. However, there are a lot of experiences in life that could also be said to be outside of language – like intense experiences of music, dance, and art.
    So, how would you differentiate between the outside of language experiences that are felt to be positive from those that are experienced as traumatic?

    • Lynette asked: How do I differentiate between flashbacks being outside language vs. other thing like music, dance, and art which seem to exist outside language?

      1. I’m not sure I can answer this, but I’ll try. I believe that all 3 (music, dance, and art) did not arise in humans until the evolutionary development of the modern human brain, human consciousness, and language. So, from that perspective, perhaps they, in some sense, do exist in language/human consciousness (in a way that flashbacks do not).

      2. Flashbacks are a kind of associative memory. Human memory for events (i.e., episodic memory) is usually declarative and semantic. That is, episodic memory exists in language, conceptualized, and as part of our autobiographical account. Flashbacks are not like that. Flashbacks are not a normal kind of memory.

      • ken benau, phd says:

        paul, you wrote, in response to the question re: differentiating flashbacks and various “nonverbal art forms” (music, dance, visual art):

        1. I’m not sure I can answer this, but I’ll try. I believe that all 3 (music, dance, and art) did not arise in humans until the evolutionary development of the modern human brain, human consciousness, and language. So, from that perspective, perhaps they, in some sense, do exist in language/human consciousness (in a way that flashbacks do not).

        i agree, paul, and would add (following the philosopher suzanne langer), that all art forms give “form to feeling”, and they do so because of our capacity to “think about” or “reflect upon” and then “re-present” the feeling(s) we are given form to in our art. flashbacks do not “re-present” or give “meaning” to an experience, they “re-play” it. i believe the evolution of human consciousness that you refer to, paul, is the capacity to psychologically distance oneself from an experience, and then re-present it in some symbolic form (be it a coherent verbal narrative), or the various non-verbal art forms. i would argue, based upon recent neuroscientific findings, that this capacity to “give form to feeling” exists because of the development of the prefrontal cortex, which i suspect is fairly quiescent during a flashback. to use a crude analogy, flashbacks are like the painful experience of vomiting, as contrasted with sartre’s book, nausea.

  2. Bob Slater says:

    Lynette, I think that those positive experiences you mention, along with some religious experiences that are viewed as positive, would be things that those experiencing them would add to how they experience life, a stabilizing or strengthening experience, while I believe flashbacks are nearly always something experienced as destabilizing or weakening. Paul discussed in his previous post what brain mechanisms are in play when a flashback occurs, my sense is that these changes do not occur with the positive nonverbal experiences. Though what you mention does bring up an interesting thought. If we consider the practice of Mindfulness to be a positive and stabilizing one, where at it’s best it is experienced vs. verbalized, then maybe this mechanism is one that reduces the ways the brain shuts down during flashbacks, enabling the person to gain more of a sense of personal control over what had previously been uncontrollable.

    • Bob points out that music, art, and dance are positive experiences, whereas flashbacks are negative and out of control. For me, the key issue is that music, dance, and art are voluntary, intentional undertakings. Flashbacks, of course, are not. They are painfully involuntary. They are autonomously occurring symptoms.

  3. ken benau, phd says:

    while flashbacks may (or may not) have some words as part of the overall experience, they are, i agree, dominated by sensory stimuli that are emotionally and somatically super-charged. flashbacks strike me as a curious combination of “re-living” (thus the word “back”, as in “having been here before”) and “warning”, as in a future danger to be avoided. i assume the re-living is not unlike a recurrent nightmare (albeit in a waking state, which makes flashbacks particularly frightening), and like bad dreams are dominated by “right brain” phenomena. the aspect of “warning” that seems, to me, to be an “adaptive” function of flashbacks, is the limbic brain’s way of saying, “some stimuli has presented itself in the present that is reminiscent of a real or perceived threat to survival in the past; it must be avoided at all costs”. (of course, flashbacks are not fully adaptive, because they are part of the amygdala’s overly conservative nature: “when in doubt, assume a snippet of the old danger means the whole threat is about to return or has already returned”). finally, i agree a “narrative” must be constructed that gives meaning to the flashback, but not just any narrative. many trauma survivors interpret flashbacks as a sign that they are going crazy. i believe the narrative that leads to healing typically include 1) how the original traumatic event was experienced as a threat to survival; 2) how the limbic brain encoded certain stimuli during the traumatic event, often in fragments that serve as present-day triggers of the flashback; and 3) how the person can remember the traumatic event in a new way that is not overwhelming (i.e. better regulated), so that a more coherent narrative can be constructed which, in effect, incorporates the flashback into a meaningful “whole” that integrates verbal and non-verbal experience.

    • Karin Dyhr says:

      @ Ken:

      As an ‘ex-flashbacker’ I couldn’t agree more with what you say! It not only SOUNDS right, it FEELS right. The attempt on amygdala’s part to warn and (thereby) to save I think is absolutely right.

    • Ken,

      This is quite nice. I think that flashbacks are, indeed, a combination of warning and reliving. It is the reliving that is mysterious. We all can easily see how the amygdala would, quite adaptively, have a strong reaction to circumstances that ‘look’ the same as the past dangerous trauma. To warn, a jolt of amygdalar fear would be sufficient. But, in many cases we get a whole lot more than a jolt of fear. We get autonomous intrusive images, partial or full relivings, body sensations, etc. In short, we get flashbacks instead of a simple phobic response.

      • I am coming upon our blog 4 years after many dated posts. As someone with PTSD since not quite yr years of age, my experience is lengthly. 56 years after witnessing a fatal accident, in which I was injured also, at not quite three, I had flashbacks most of my life, but they were not diagnosed until an audio and then visual memory surfaced of the actual accident.

        My experiences include autonomous images, partial that takes form of millisecond visual or auditory memory, body memory/physical pain and full-an entire scene of the accident, with sight, sound, smell and emotions. Only many years later are the emotions that went with the trauma re0connecting in my body as flashbacks occur. Terrifying as this is, with help to feel safe enough to allow body shaking and release of emotions triggered at the time, but repressed at the time, the flashbacks of this initial trauma gradually are no longer returning.

        In the nine years since actual memory of the accident ( verified by research includes newspaper articles, death certificate and more ) my experiences agree with Ken about reliving. I’m open to the concept of warning, yet believe from experience it is more a case of the body/mind attempting to heal, by releasing the unprocessed trauma.

        Concept of warning I may relate to, as triggers, be they visual, auditory and and/or weather pattern changes, evoke trauma that involved a gruesome death and personal injury to self, and the conditions in the present moment in some way resemble those at the time of the accident; perhaps my body/mind is doing it’s utmost to “prevent” a similar tragedy similar to how a smoke alarm detects what may be a dangerous fire to alert one to danger-thus preventing our human equivalent of a fire.

        The most astonishing form of flashback I experienced was the release of the sound track of the entire accident scene, released from the solar plexus area of my body during an EMDR therapy session. Coincidentally, the session was on the anniversary date of the
        accident! Volume of the audio of the accident scene was loud enough the therapist heard and recognized what she and I were hearing. She described what she heard, shouts, squeal of bus air brakes, wailing, screaming, crying, car brakes, doors slamming, multiple sirens!

  4. FRANCISCO ORENGO says:

    Great “brain storming” Paul. Thanks for your blog!

    Sharing many things of what has been said, I have an “alternative” idea about flashbacks and nightmares. I think they are automatized physical forms of provoking a intense fear that disappears when the persons recovers the sense of reality and experiences a relief of the type , “Oh, it was just a dream”! This “cycle” seeems to have an adaptative value.

    I think the people who have undergone a series of very stressful, severe traumatic experiences, all of them, get to some degree “addicted” to trauma. The body gets addicted. The addiction is not only a need to return to the stresful experience, it is the well-known need to “relive” an experience that puts the whole system in motion again (suicide attempts included). These people experience a sense of life / survival just if they feel at their highest levels of stress hormones that includes endorphins. And this is just possible through the reexperiencing of fear and danger for your life. But, in my view, what is really the decisive aspect of the addiction-to-trauma (flashback / nightmare) is this incredible sensation of “oh, it was just a dream”. The relief is what is needed by our psychophysiology. Of course, all this cycle is the result of a perverse / ill way of obtaining a sense that we are alive. Is the sensation of regaining live after a terrible suffering once and again.

    Does it make sense to anyone?

    • Francisco,

      Are you a psychoanalyst? It sounds to me like you are talking about Freud’s repetition compulsion. I do not believe that the repetition compulsion (or some other urge to repeat the trauma, perhaps with a successful outcome this time) has anything whatsoever to do with flashbacks. On the other hand, I do think that there are internal pressures in abuse survivors that return them to dangerous situations, again and again. They often do a poor job of protecting themselves later in life. Finally, I suspect that there is an attachment-driven wish to ‘get it right’ this time. That is, they believe that their parents were cold/rejecting/critical because they were bad kids. I think the longstanding, deep urge to finally ‘get it right,’ so that Mom and Dad will love them, may play out in their later relationships with narcisisstic and abusive partners.

  5. Karin Dyhr says:

    May trigger.

    @ Francisco:

    I don’t agree with what you say – at least it isn’t something that I recognize, neither in myself (I used to have flashbacks) or in others that I know.
    The snag is, the feeling you describe as “Oh, it was just a dream””, which would eventually lead to increasing mastery, certainly doesn’t pop up very often, if ever! At least, not until you have worked on your trauma and your flashbacks for a long time with your therapist. And even then, I don’t think (IMO) there is ever the feeling of adaption or “It was just a dream”, because basically IT WASN’T. With all the ‘misconstruing’ that inevitably follows, our flashbacks was what happened, or how we percieved what happened. My father’s abuse wasn’t dream, however much I wish they had been. My Sri Lankan ‘bonus son’s’ flahsbacks about the torture he was subjected to will never be just a dream, as the marks on his body show.

    Of course I may be heavily biased, since I myself have had flashbacks, and the idea of having WANTED them would probably feel alien, even slightly offending, even if it were/is true.

  6. FRANCISCO ORENGO says:

    Dear Karin,

    what I´ve said has nothing to do with WANTING. If what I´ve said would be true, then the problem is that the person who feels the flash backs is the prisoner of continuos repetitions that at any cae would he/she will. This is the problem when the body gets addicted in the way I try to explain.

    Of course you do not want the suffering. It would be that just your body that has been fixed to this conditioning.This is the “comdenation” to repeat and repeat and the essence of this terrible disorder we call ourdays PTSD.

    • I see no way to apply that theory to my experience with this at all, Francisco. It sounds like the thinking of a psychiatrist I had back in the 1970’s whose greatest achievement with me was to motivate me to stay the HELL away from any form of therapy for over 30 years. I don’t know if it’s due to a language or cultural obstacle, or if you really believe what you seem to be saying, but in my experience any idea that “my body” is “addicted” to “continuous repetitions” of trauma is flat out wrong. I could go for years and years without having a flashback. After lots of work with an excellent therapist I now see common threads of ***emotions*** that trigger them for me. It might not be a similar *event* or even a specific *person* or *place* that triggers me. I’ve found there’s an *emotional* connection every time. It doesn’t just randomly happen just because “my body” needs a freakin flashback fix. Gah.

    • Karin Dyhr says:

      Dear Francisco,

      Just to say that when I used the word ‘want’, I actually used the word in the broad sense of the word where I included what you descibed as “addiction” and my body (brain) “needing” the trauma in order to obtain relief.

      I still don’t agree with you, but I’m sorry if I was unclear in my (perhaps too hasty) reply. Also let me be on the safe side and blame my ‘foreigner’s English’ once again 😉

      However, what you write makes me think of the various speculations as to why people self-harm, for instance that people who feel ‘dead’ because they are in a very dissociated state may induce pain in order to feel alive. Also some psychologists i Denmark think that many self-harmers get high, because of the release of endorphines, and hence get addicted to self-harm.
      (These were not my primary goals when I self-harmed, but that’s a different kettle of fish).

    • Francisco,

      Are you talking about trauma survivors becoming addicted to chaos and stress? I do think that there some trauma survivors to whom that applies. For example, I have frequently heard it said that there is a disproportionately large percentage of trauma survivors among Emergency Room nurses and paramedics.

      • Karin Dyhr says:

        Or maybe that’s because we are simply very good at working under stress, dissociating into a bubble of doing what needs to be done, without thinking of our own needs? A very useful ‘normal dissociation’ for anybody who works under very stresseful conditions, of course, but we are trained from childhood, so to speak.
        Also I think statistics show that many who grew up having (emotional) responsibility for their families become ‘helpers’ later in life. Again, this is what we know we are good at. Unfortunately it may be the *only* thing we know we are good at, and we might easily become ’24/7 helpers’ = helpers with own unresolved needs, probably bound to collapse some time or other – and maybe at this time begin to have flashbacks.
        Like others here my flashbacks started pretty late in life when it seemed that career (yes, as a helper – a music therapist) was going extremely well. Then one day it all crashed and I began having flashbacks. Or maybe the other way round?

  7. FRANCISCO ORENGO says:

    Again: I do not try to say in any sense that this hypothesized way I wrote is a fatalistic, unavoidable dynamic. No. Of course, good therapy reverses this possible dynamic and desensitizes, reverses, created associations to emocional events and also of other sensorial types. I am a psychotherapist and work with patients all the time. I was talking about many people that receive no treatment at all and are left to the own dynamics of a disorder that seems to never end. From those, I received in my office people who were decades under the suffering of the disorder.

    AND AGAIN: THERE IS NO CONSCIOUS INTENTION BEHIND.

  8. ken benau, phd says:

    francisco, you wrote:

    “The addiction is not only a need to return to the stressful experience, it is the well known need to “relive” an experience that puts the whole system in motion again (suicide attempts included). These people experience a sense of live / survival just if they feel at their highest levels of stress hormones that includes endorphins. And this is just possible through the reexperimentation of fear and danger for your live. But, in my view, what is really the decisive aspect of the addiction-to-trauma (flashback / nightmare) is this incredible sensation of “oh, it was just a dream”. The relief is what is needed by our psychophysiology. Of course, all this cycle is the result of a perverse / ill way of obtaining a sense that we are alive. Is the sensation of regaining live after a terrible suffering once and again”.

    if i understand you correctly, you are contending the trauma survivor’s “addiction” is to two things: 1) the intense feeling of aliveness (on the edge of imminent threat to survival); and 2) the profound relief that follows the reliving– “oh, it was just a flashback, i’m still alive”. while those of us who have experienced trauma, or work with trauma survivors know, there is something that has been called the “trauma vortex” which, like the feeling of wanting to jump off a very high height, “seems to draw” the survivor toward “re-experiencing” the traumatic event, in one form or another. i emphasize “seems to draw”, as i think it is an oversimplification to say the person (consciously or unconsciously) seeks to re-experience the terror and helplessness of a traumatic event, either for the “on the edge” experience or the relief that follows. Freud said all dreams were wish fulfillments. When asked about nightmares, he said, the wish is to wake up and feel the relief in knowing “it was just a dream”. i think freud was pushing his luck, here, and i think you are as well. if that were the primary motivation (again, conscious or unconscious), then most people would be seeking to repeat many bad experiences in order to feel the relief that follows. in this regard, i am with an earlier freud: we are generally motivated to seek pleasure, not pain (nor the relief that follows pain).

    while i have worked with individuals (one combat vet comes to mind) who seemed to be seeking some sort of “re-living” of the trauma, on closer inspection it was something else they were seeking (e.g. re-living the intense cameraderie forged in the face of death). for those trauma survivors who keep “repeating” bad choices that result in re-traumatization or, at the minimum, a re-evocation of traumatic memories, i think the “motivations” behind these so-called “choices” are incredibly complex, and may include (but are not limited to): 1) the desire to repeat in an effort to, this time, “master” the trauma; 2) the difficulty in “thinking about” rather than “reacting” to a whole host of trauma-inducing “triggers”; 3) the difficulty in accurately registering present-day “danger” when one is in a chronically “numbed” or “dissociated” state; 4) the difficulty in knowing when one is in the presence of someone “safe” or “good”, if one has lived one’s life in a chronically “hypervigilant” (read: “neurophysiologically unsafe”) state; 5) the belief, borne out by years of trauma-inducing shame and self-hatred, that one does not really “deserve” any better, or even if one believes they “deserve better”, does not really have any faith or hope that they can “have better”.

    i hope this clarifies why i believe your “addiction model” does not go far enough to explain the tendency to “repeat” that we see in some trauma survivors. i will say that you are raising an important dilemma that many (including freud) grappled with: why do many people find themselves “repeating” the very things they found so horrific in the first instance. freud came up with the “death instinct” to explain this… i believe he was wrong on that account, too.

  9. FRANCISCO ORENGO says:

    hello Ken,

    thank you for your interesting comments. I do not want to monopolize the blog but I need to add just some nuances. I try to keep short.
    1. The “seeking” of displeasure, of pain, is always physically driven and an almost “normalized” learned behaviour which tries to make the following deal: offers the pain to a higher objective and takes the pleasure for the body himself. Of course, we are most of the time completely unaware of this.
    2. Given the incredible high number of more or less painful experiences we human beeings continuosly repeat and repeat (wars, for instance), I am meanwhile convinced that, as you wrote, ” then most people would be seeking to repeat many bad experiences in order to feel the relief that follows”. In fact, I think it is the most severe problem of humanity: that we have construct a need of obtaining pleasure trough a sublimative way, as Freud said.
    3. Regarding “motivations” to repeat, I fully agree that the “repertoire” of conditioned links to “get back” and relive are various and complex but, in modesty and full respect for those who suffer this, this of the unavoidable drive of an addictive behaviour seemed to me the most powerful.

  10. I think this particular point is crucial for understanding flashbacks. Intrusive thoughts come to us already formed into language. Flashbacks don’t. Flashbacks are fragmented images, sensations, and affects. In order for a flashback to finally stop, we must bring those fragments into language. We must develop a narrative of what happened… What do you think about flashbacks existing outside language?”

    Based on my own experience I’d say you nailed it. I’ve had flashbacks that included memories of words being said, but not that included the ability – during the actual flashback – to describe to myself that although I’m experiencing ABC at the moment, it actually happened in the past. You lose your orientation to time and place during the flashback and may even lose a sense of who you are. It’s like taking an unexpected tumble down the psychic stairs, which can leave you shocked, bruised, and not sure which way is up for awhile.

    Afterwards, you may try to make some sort of sense out of it, and that’s where you get the chance to translate the experience into word-thoughts. Sometimes I’ve realized immediately that it was something that had happened however many years ago. Other times I’ve perceived it as though it had happened to someone else, but with a troubling sense that I still didn’t understand. Still other times, I’ve not been able to grasp quite what happened or whether it happened at all. Those are the most unsettling, and the most likely (in my experience) to be shoved aside as quickly as possible as I distract myself in one way or another.

    In any case, it’s after the flashback that this process of explaining to yourself (or someone else) what happened gets the time to take place. During the flashback your internal “wordprocessing program” goes OFFLINE. If you think of sitting in your office typing your typical narrative thought process of life experience in a constant stream of text, when all of a sudden your chair is spinning in the front car of a rollercoaster in the middle of a tornado. You don’t have time to wonder where the heck your keyboard went or how to explain it!

    • When you share your own experience of flashbacks with us, you enrich our understanding and you help to guide the thinking of us (so-called) experts who have worked with flashbacks in our patients (but have not experienced them personally). You have your own expertise. Thank you for your generous sharing.
      You also seem to have acquired a fairly clear idea about how to process flashbacks, how to slowly transform them from a tornado into a narrative that you can reflect upon.

      • Well, I *think* I be catching on, but the only way I know of to confirm that is to actually have more flashbacks and see how it goes, right? I’ve only had a couple since starting to try to figure this out a few months ago, shortly after having a flashback during a therapy session. I recovered from the last two more quickly and developed more curiosity and confidence about trying to sort them out on my own, especially with the second one. I’ve also been able to interrupt a flashback for another part that I’m close to internally and helped her, too. I didn’t realize until later that I’d basically imitated what the doctor did with me, and used it for my distressed partner. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to help a much younger part who is much more volatile and, so far, unable to recognize my presence, so I’m not ready to claim victory yet. 🙂

        But the more I’ve thought about your comments regarding flashbacks existing outside of language, the more I wonder how often hearing a calm, trusted, present voice draws people out of “flashback mode” and back into “word thought” mode. I don’t know whether that’s causing the “word-processing” part of our brains to reboot or what, but something like that seems to have happened in the 2 instances I’m aware of where someone was nearby and able to assist during a flashback.

        • This is a stretch, but….unresolved trauma is more likely to be held in the right hemisphere, in the amygdala as I understand it, which is less likely to be verbal than the left. The right hemisphere is also the domain for embodiment, the felt sense of the body including in dance, right hemisphere appreciation of art, emotion, intuition, relationship, context and more. The unresolved material is more likely to be subcortical.

          Once it has been processed it is more readily accessible by the neocortex of the left hemisphere, more fully synthesized by the neocortex in the right hemisphere, and takes its place in the fund of knowledge in the hippocampus.

          I have more to say about flashbacks…

          • I was going to make a comment about thinking you’re probably right about this based on the flashback I had during a therapy session a couple of months ago, during which my therapist jumped in with bilateral stimulation. Then I saw your post below mentioning EMDR. I don’t think my therapist intended to trigger the flashback, and we weren’t doing EMDR at the time, but I have to say that I found it very helpful that she started using bilateral stimulation right after the flashback began. It seemed to at least keep me aware of her presence and I think I retained more information from the flashback, with less of a feeling of extreme distress. What didn’t work out so well was that later, within a day or so, I kept having “mini-flashes” and really negative feelings about therapy in general, and I kind of blamed the dear old doc. I’ve basically refused to work with her since but other parts have continued, and maybe I’ll try again now that I’ve gained some perspective on it. 🙂

    • Karin Dyhr says:

      I recognize all that you say here, and you put it extremly well!
      I also had many flashbacks (at least that’s what I have called them) where it seemed that only my body was involved. No hearing, no seeing, no smelling involved, but simply my body reacting by itself, so to speak. At these times I felt indescribably horrified, but since there were absolutly no thoughts involved at all, it left me feeling totally confused, too. What on earth happened to me to make me so completely devastated? What on earth is wrong with me?? At least with my ‘normal flashbacks’ I had tiny little threads of meaning and memory attached, which could then be used in my therapy later But these body memories, body flashbacks, always led to what I perceived to be a total and extremely frightening melt down.

  11. In my clinical experience, flashbacks act rather like slivers do; both are trying to work their way out. That is to say, the body’s innate tendency is to heal and push out that which doesn’t belong there, or metabolize it. When I was 9 I had a very long sliver, and we went to the ER to have it removed. Voila! Out. But 3 weeks later, and a few weeks after that, I’d feel this shock of electricity that would indicate another piece had worked its way to the surface, rendering it removable with tweezers.

    In traumatic memory, the raw unprocessed traumatic BASK material is held apart, sequestered, either in a preexisting structure (DID) or a lean-to or maybe an encapsulated blister made for the occasion (PTSD) to contain the material. The innate healing tendency causes the material to move toward resolution. Nightmares and flashbacks are the electric shocks that indicate its getting closer to the surface. But if the capacity of the processor is smaller than the volume or intensity of material, the person can’t do it readily. An industrial strength processor is needed, like EMDR or another procedure, coupled with a healing resource present (therapist usually), the material can be tweezed and resolved.

    • Hi Sandra,

      For me, there are two key points in your post. First, like some other members of the UnderstandingDissociation.com community, you consider flashbacks to come from the body/mind’s innate tendency to heal. Second, you see the unprocessed trauma material as always dissociated (i.e., “held apart, sequestered”). Both of those verbs imply an active process of containing or holding away from consciousness.

      Do I have that right or would you in any way qualify my re-phrasings? What do others think about these two points? Agree? Disagree? Don’t care? 🙂

      • Karin Dyhr says:

        A thought: if many of us experience that flashbacks start coming fairly late in life and often at a time where things seem to be going quite well, is that then an indication of the mind now beginning to be ready to remember – and hence showing the innate tendency to heal?
        I’m aware that I may not only be side-tracking, but also doing it in a very primitive lay-manner.

        • Not primitive at all, Karin! And I’m thinking along the same lines as you.

        • Katin,

          I think you are pointing to a truly important question: Why do flashbacks happen? What are the determinants? And why now? Often, you can identify what seemed to trigger it, but then you are stuck with realizing that you encountered that same cue many times before — without it triggering a flashback. “The mind is ready to heal” is one hypothesis. The truth is that we have a handful of educated guesses (i.e., hypotheses), but we really don’t have much evidence to help us choose among those hypotheses.

          RESEARCH IDEA: Little is known empirically about flashbacks. Any and all research that examines the apparent cues and the internal readinesses or reasons for the cue to trigger the flashback (i.e., activate that memory) would be a valuable contribution.

      • Holly Gray says:

        I absolutely agree with Sandra if, like you re-phrased, she means that ” … flashbacks … come from the body/mind’s innate tendency to heal.” Maybe it’s my inclination toward glass-half-full thinking there, but I firmly believe my brain, like the rest of my body, wants to heal, to survive. It’s darwinian, even!

    • Sandra, I appreciate your sharing, as it makes sense of a process that is difficult to near impossible to relate to others. And until one xperiences it, or witnesses someone who is having flashback, most people can’t imagine what it is like. I have what are believed to be flashbacks during dream state, so powerful that the images & sounds woke me up allowing me to “see” the traumatic experience.

      I have found both EMDR beneficial and Sensiomotor Therapy to provide safety and containment for the safe release and processing of the flashback.I also experienced a flashback in the presence of an NMD ( Naturopathic Medical Doctor); all three individuals provided safe, supportive, healing presence.

      In my case, fuller flashbacks occurred after years of therapy, 12-Step work, body work, and developing spiritual tools from studying Eneagrams,Jungian Psychology, dreams ( including prophetic dreams), and learning self-soothing techniques. My therapists theory is when one has developed the tools to cope with the process, it is possible to undergo
      such challenging and difficult physiological and powerful emotional work. This reminds me of Dr. Victor Frankl’s words in his book, Man’s Search for Meaning.

      Frankl uses the analogy of a deep sea diver, and the need to resurface slowly to prevent the bends. When a diver surfaces, from the depths of the sea, careful, regulated, slow process of returning to the surface must be done to prevent the bends and death. Your own analogy of the sliver relates to that, in my opinion. With early, pre-verbal, complex trauma, one must develop the ability to tolerate the process, be open to the help required to safely allow the trauma to surface and deal with it’s implications.

  12. Reblogged this on Trauma and Dissociation and commented:
    Forging a deeper understanding of Flashbacks Part I – flashbacks lie outside language.

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  14. Marty says:

    Excellent Blog and very inspiring respondents ( so glad I came on here) . May I develop this a bit more ? Not only are flashbacks non narrative they are non linear. Ever since the Roman Empire we have lived in a world which imposes a template of 24/7 measured linear order through the roads we drive upon, the buildings we construct and use, the newspapers we read, the taxes we pay, the laws we abide, the social customs to which we must adhere, the job schedules we have to accommodate, the time on our wrists… unlike any other creature on the planet. David Icke has made his views known on this artificial construct which defines 21st century man and woman in sustaining “civilised” ( ahem) society, the benefits of which most of us enjoy while possibly overlooking the undercurrent both individually and collectively.

    Perhaps the mind doesn’t see it that way and via flashback is struggling to regain itself from 24/7 artificially imposed, linear, narrative order whatever the nature of the trauma or event ? English poet Ted Hughes refers to it as mankind’s “egotistical egg shell frailty” at man’s futile attempts to order everything around himself (including each other) while nature’s beasts are quite happy just existing as they are in the nature’s universal construct.

    One of his own ‘flashback ‘poems was about bumping into a goat on a mountainside during a country walk, who simply wouldn’t clear his path and felt no reason for doing so. He describes this stand-off, staring into its eyes for many minutes , the goat stone facedly staring back, neither friendly nor hostile, oblivious to any notion of intent, purport or social etiquette (or OK, I’ll move, you’re bigger than me). Looking into the animal’s eyes Hughes felt a sad realisation of himself, his own detachment from nature and awareness that the animal’s natural mentality, on a totally different frequency, no less valid than his own, at one with its own environment, that if anything it was Hughes , not the goat, who shouldn’t have been there. What right did Ted Hughes possibly dare to have to expect the goat to move is the crux of the poem and which affected Ted Hughes.

    …Going off at a bit of a tangent there, but I wonder, expressed poetically, some of the things we’re trying to explore here : the mind, via flashback, fighting back against our imposed narrative linear order in all apects of our lives…

  15. Pingback: Using visualization for stabilization and safety in Dissociative Identity Disorder and OSDD | Trauma and Dissociation Project

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