Flashbacks, also known as “intrusive recall,” are traumatic memories, thoughts, and pictures from a past event that reoccur in the present when triggered by incoming sensory data. There are four categories of flashbacks: (1) nightmares or dreams; (2) dreams from which the person awakens but remains under the influence of the dream so as to be out of touch with reality; (3) waking flashbacks, in which the person may or may not lose touch with reality but also may have accompanying reactions and hallucinations; and (4) unconscious flashbacks, in which the person is unaware that he or she is reliving the traumatic event and there appears to be little or no connection between past event, present context, and flashback.
Flashbacks act like a video loop in the brain that replays the “recorded material” as if for the first time in its intensity. Flashbacks can take the pictorial form of the original events or present as reactions that accompanied the original traumas, with emotions such as dread, grief, horror, anger, or helplessness. Triggers of flashbacks are reminders of the trauma. They occur in the present tense and often are time-related dates and events, such as anniversaries of the trauma, holidays, and funerals; or an encounter with someone who was the source of abuse. Triggers also can be any stimulus that may have been present within the context of the original trauma, such as sounds that imitate the original sound of the ensuing trauma, or sights, smells, and tastes that were present at the time of trauma or that remind the person of the trauma. A flashback may psychologically paralyze the person and render him or her unable to carry on normal activities temporarily, or over the long term.
Sometimes, the trauma is literally “unspeakable.” The brain’s inability to respond cognitively and rationally to irrational events causes the brain to “short-circuit.” The trauma is recorded within the brain as a whole, but cannot be accessed from the usual cognitive logical sources in the left hemisphere because it is so irrational. The event is nevertheless also recorded in pictorial form in the opposite hemisphere. Indelibly imprinted as images, the event is repeatedly reaccessed in the brain’s attempt to assess and process the experience. In flashbacks the brain is revisiting the scene in order for understanding and healing to begin. In this respect the flashback can be thought of as a normal function in a dysfunctional or malfunctioning situation, to make logical sense of what is otherwise incommunicable. In some cases, the trauma is so great, or the time at which it happened so strategic, such as in youth, that the brain cannot accomplish the necessary restructuring of the event without adequate help. Flashbacks continue as a release of the internal horror the person feels.
Physiologically, trauma overwhelms the brain’s ordinary responses to life and chemically changes the expressions the brain responds with. It stops the healthy normal interaction of right and left hemisphere so that the victim cannot access the helps needed to overcome the trauma. This process is an actual brain wound that causes a breakdown of functionality. Thus, a course of therapy that approaches trauma wounding from the right hemisphere of the brain, that is, intuitively and creatively, often sidesteps the chemically changed processing ability of the brain’s left hemisphere by accessing a different set of communication methods. Often, therapeutic art-making literally can help “draw out” the trauma so it finally can be verbalized. Through this process and other integrative therapies, the hemispheres of the brain eventually may reconnect healthily as the memorypictures are processed, and flashbacks cease.
Jacqueline O. Coffee
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