Brief Introduction to Flashbacks

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The American Heritage Dictionary defines Flashback as: “A recurring, intensely vivid mental image of a past traumatic experience.” Abreaction is defined as: “To release (repressed emotions) by acting out, as in words, behavior, or the imagination, the situation causing the conflict.” While these are both accurate technically, they are missing some detail.

A Flashback is the mind’s way of dealing with a traumatic event that it was unable to make sense of when the event happened. The trauma can be anything, a car accident, war, rape, torture, childhood abuse, or even embarrassment. The event can be experienced directly or witnessed. Generally the traumatic event carries a threat of harm, sometimes real, sometimes imagined.

Many Coping With Flashbacks also include abreactions, best defined as a physical or emotional reenactment of repressed memory. On occasion, Coping With Flashbacks may be accompanied by physical manifestations such as bruising, swelling, or bleeding. I have found this to be quite rare in my own experiences, but when this does happen, it makes dealing with the flashback particularly difficult.

One thing that is extremely important to understand is that each individual has different levels of tolerance. An event that may be a mild inconvenience to one could devastate another for a lifetime.

Categorizing Flashbacks

A Flashback can involve any combination of the six senses:

  • Sight
  • Hearing
  • Touch
  • Smell
  • Taste
  • Equilibrium

Making things even more complex is the fact that the intensity of the Coping With Flashbacks may vary. Generally the first recall of any event is the most intense. This first recall can have incredible impact and can disrupt the individual for several days or even weeks. Specific “triggers” can also increase the intensity of a given flashback.

When I started experiencing flashbacks, I categorized them not only by the senses involved but also by the intensity.

I also tried to indicate if the material was new or had previously been recalled. Charting the flashbacks can allow an individual to see their progress in dealing with the memories and is helpful to their Therapist as well, giving insight into issues that need to be dealt with.

When recording a flashback, write down only enough of the memory as you need to and indicate the intensity of the senses involved. If an associated event triggered the flashback, mark that down as well.

Dangerous Memories

A person recalling trauma is under severe stress. Often they go many nights with little or no sleep, their memories push them to the depths of depression and suicide. The conditions upon recall can come close to equaling the stress that happened during the trauma itself. Under these conditions people become more susceptible to suggestion. This self-hypnosis, even if minor, can severely disrupt the healing process.

In dealing with my own flashbacks, I have found that often the memory is recalled out of sequence and part of the processing I do is piecing it back together as a complete memory. There are times that I do not have the complete picture, initially I hindered my progress by trying to construct events or draw out the missing pieces. I have since learned that this is not only a bad idea, but it can be extremely dangerous.

As a result of my lesson, I stopped reading material that I feel may assist in the false creation of memory. I also refrain from therapy methods, which may do the same such as Scrapbook Therapy.

Scrapbook Therapy is the practice of going through magazines and making collages from found pictures in an attempt to spark memory. My personal belief is that this method can spark the creation of false memory unless carefully monitored.

I take an extreme approach to managing my own mental health because I feel I need to. My own diagnosis of ptsd means that I am extremely susceptible to self-hypnosis. It was this very thing that allowed me to escape the trauma when it was happening.

I equate the process of “drawing out” the missing pieces to reading every fifth chapter of a book and trying to guess what happened during the parts you missed. It is my belief that this is what happens in many cases of recalled childhood abuse. The pieces that your mind does not feel you are ready for are guessed at. Imagery from movies or books can become mixed in, and the individual can start creating their worst fears as actual events.

It is my belief that some cases of Ritual abuse are self-created as a result of this process. The person recalling or reconstructing the events truly believes them to be real, and often their therapist also believes the events real because of the emotion and pain involved in the patient’s telling. While it is likely rare, it is this reason that therapists need to constantly be on guard against asking leading questions that may actually create a false memory.

This creation of SRA Survivors has hindered the recognition of actual Ritual Abuse cases and given birth to several organizations that claim all repressed/recovered memory is false or unreliable. It has also been the core issue in the recognition of dissociative identity disorder as a legitimate diagnosis.

Sean is the Editor of Mental Health Matters. His life changed in 1996 during a business trip to Southern California. After driving through the neighborhood where he grew up, he started recalling a series of traumatic events that eventually took over. After a four-month battle on his own to try and keep the memory buried, he finally sought help. During a series of voluntary stays in a local hospital, he was diagnosed with Depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He has been active in individual therapy and group therapy during his recovering, and he continues to cope with the recalled memory of childhood sexual abuse. Sean continues to recover daily, and is proud to be a part of a site that helps others.

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