Hi Friends, how are you today?
So I realized the last two blog posts I put up did not have the correct numbers. I am attempting to keep track of my years on the blog, and I already screwed it up. Since 2021 is the 2nd year of Life Into Lemonade, the other 2 should have been 2.1 and 2.2, but I messed up! So we’re going to roll with it, and this one shall start year two’s counting.
As silly as it sounds... little mess ups like that used to be detrimental to me. I used to make them them the biggest deal, and the negative self-talk would take over. My reactions to that kind of small little screw up was always so over-dramatic for something so minor.
Also, is Flashback Friday still a thing? I know Thowback Thursday is, but what ever happened to Flashback Friday?
Anyway! Today I want to talk to you guys about flashbacks.
⚠️I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or anyone with any sort of degree. I do not claim to be any sort of expert in the matters of domestic violence or any form of mental health issues. I am just a person with a lot of life experience, and someone who has done a lot of research in order to understand situations I have been apart of.
Now that, that is all said and done, let’s begin.
If you have gone through a traumatic experience, or suffer from PTSD or C-PTSD then you know very well what a flashback is, how they randomly happen, and how debilitating they can be. They seem to pop up whenever and wherever they like, and it seems like flashbacks can be triggered by even the must mundane things. But in reality, there is a lot of science behind it. Flashbacks are caused by a trigger. A trigger can be anything from environmental, emotional, a location, a person, a smell. You name it, and suddenly you can be completely thrown into that memory.
Most people hear flashbacks, and can recall happy memories.
Their favourite Christmas.
That birthday where they had a massive surprise party.
That time at your friend’s place where you laughed so hard milk came out your nose (been there, it happens, and it hurts, but you can’t help but laugh about it again after).
Or they think of those crazy flashback scenes in movies.
Real flashbacks are kind of like those ones in the movies. You space out, all you can focus on is the memory that has chosen that exact moment to replay itself. For people who have been through any kind of trauma, flashbacks can be debilitating.
Again, I want to stress: I am not a psychologist, psychotherapist or doctor of any kind. All I know are my symptoms, what causes them, and what I have lived through. I am sharing my experiences and information I have collected from other Trauma Survivors to begin piecing together how my brain handles and understands trauma.
I will use my own experience as an example.
This actually just occurred last week.
I was driving to my boyfriend’s place. He lives alone so under Ontario’s Grey Zone Lockdown measures and the Stay at Home Order, it is still okay for me to go over there as he and I have amalgamated our homes.
While I was driving to his place, he lives in the next city over, I hopped onto the QEW everything was fine. I was singing in my car, having a grand ol’ time since no one was on the highway with me. I went to change lanes, put on my signal, and BAM! I got hit with a flashback. I was driving... Not the most opportune time for this to happen.
I started panicking, and heavy breathing as I was driving, and knew very quickly I had to get this under control.
The flashback was back to a day when my ex and I were out driving, he got so angry about whatever we were disagreeing about, that he smashed his turn signal on, and ended up breaking the actual switch off in his hand.
Now to some, this may not seem like an overly traumatic event... I get it, he was mad and broke his turn signal off... Big deal. But! I always say what is traumatic to you, doesn’t have to make sense to other people. What made this whole situation so traumatizing wasn’t the fact that he broke a piece off in his car, but it was the anger he had, the look he gave me, the panic, and fear that I felt... The anticipation of what might happen next while I sat there. Even now, I can feel my breath catching in my chest and sweat forming on my brow. The look he gave haunts me.
Now, keep in mind... This panic/fearful response was triggered while I was driving. Behind the wheel of a car? Not the best place to be having a flashback / panic attack. I had to instantly go into save mode. I had to save myself before it exploded into “full blown can’t breathe panic attack”. I had to put my emotional brain aside and let my logical brain take over (not so easy when you are doing 110km/h on the QEW order the Skyway Bridge in the middle of a traumatic flashback induced panic attack). But I had to do it, so I started to think about what was the reason for the trigger.
Was it the same time of day? No.
Was it the same stretch of highway? No.
Was it the same car? No.
Was the weather a factor? No.
The only thing that caused it, was the action of me putting my turn signal on. It’s the only logical thing. This was a memory I had completely forgotten about, and yet, BAM! There it was.
When I say they can come out of anywhere, they can literally come out of anywhere. This was a memory that happened years ago! Long before my marriage.
So why did it suddenly decide to pop up out of the blue?
What was wrong with me?
Why am I still struggling with flashbacks of someone I haven’t seen or had any contact with in years?
I was beating myself up over it, and struggling to understand why.
Naturally I turned to Google (Google has been my best friend with trying to understand my healing process). I had to figure this out. I had to understand what was going on, and the only way I would ever be able to understand would be to research why flashbacks can come out of the blue and what causes traumatic memories to be so debilitating.
I quickly fell down the rabbit hole. So many articles. So many words that I don’t understand. But I found a couple of articles that really helped to put it into lamest terms.
On the website Quora, a question was posed of “what is the science behind flashbacks?”, Natalie Engelbrecht, a registered psychotherapist answered started her response by giving the quote from GoodTherapy.org, “PTSD is not the person refusing to let go of the past, but the past refusing to let go of the person.”
Instant relief to know that I am not crazy. Well, any more crazy than normal.
A lot of my understanding and explanation below was summarized from what Natalie Engelbrecht wrote in her response on Quora. Link will be below.
Let’s start: what is the science behind why our memories will randomly trigger over such a small action that we do so regularly? When we experience trauma, our brains tend to change how we remember the events that are occurring. Engelbrecht goes into discussions about the hippocampus and the amygdala, the limbic system and frontal lobes. It was a bunch of information to take in, but the gist of it is this:
When we are experiencing non-traumatic events our brain is processing them into memories, and filing the experience into different sections of our brain while travelling in a right to left pattern. This process allows our brains to take all the littler parts of what we are experiencing and turn it into one full memory. Think about a happy memory... You can basically remember what you were wearing, what smells were around you, who was there, and it’s all associated with this one memory. When we are experiencing a traumatic event, the natural flow of the right to left pattern is disrupted. This does not allow for proper consolidation, and the memory is left in pieces, stagnant and not properly sorted or processed. This causes the brain to be unable to logically understand it, and thus what causes the memory to jump up at the seemingly randomness of times.
The hippocampus and amygdala parts of your brain on a good day are working in unison to create long term memories. The amygdala records your emotions, and the hippocampus is working to properly sort and store the memory. But when a traumatic event occurs, your amygdala takes over, your body enters flight-or-fight mode and you’re left with, for lack of a better term, a huge mess. The memory is not able to be sorted into a single experience; it has been left as a bunch of different tiny memories... all of which focus on a single item... Let me use myself as an example:
My flashback with the turn signal could be triggered by:
The day it happened
What song was playing on the radio
A type car that drove past when it happened
The time of day it happened
What I was wearing that day
Sitting in a passenger seat with tan interior
The smell of the air outside
The smell of cigarettes
The intersection where it happened
Or, in the case of what I experienced, the act of activating the turn signal to go left.
These are all tiny memories that I can recall when I think of this particular event. All of which can cause a different emotion, or a different feeling, but all are tied to this one event.
To further understand, I had to read more, and came across another article that said flashbacks are like waking nightmares.
They really are like a bad dream you can’t wake up from until it’s done.
They are vivid, and an all encompassing, sensory overload. You can’t think, can’t move, can hardly breathe, can’t focus until the memory plays itself out.
When you experience one of your triggers, and the flashback starts your brain automatically jumps back into that flight-or-fight mode. It is instantly thrown back into the exact feeling you experienced when it originally occurred. Since the memory was not properly sorted, your brain is left feeling as though that memory is actually happening again. That is why they are so vivid.
That is why they are so debilitating.
You brain can no longer distinguish between what is occurring, and what is a replay, and your body instantly goes into protection mode to prepare for the threat.
Lamest terms: your mind created the memory, but there is no context to it. There is no way for your brain to properly determine if what you are experiencing is a real threat or a replay of past events.
During my healing process I realized that I needed to understand the science behind why my body and brain were reacting the way that they do. I had to understand my brain, and learn words like hippocampus and amygdala (still not 100% sure how to pronounce it, but at least I can spell it properly!).
All of this learning really gave me a sense of peace.
Like any threat or fear, the more you understand the less you fear it.
I’ve always been this way. As a child, I had an irrational fear of hurricanes, tornados and volcanos just randomly happening in the Golden Horseshoe. Tornados, yes, definitely possibility of happening, tail bits of a hurricane? Absolutely. But volcanos? Really? In order to understand my fear behind them, I had to learn about them. Read about how and why they are formed in order to fully understand and settles my fears.
Learning about why my brain and body react to a flashback, and understanding why flashbacks occur is no different.
In order to fully understand them, I had to learn about them, and in learning about them, I realized that I had to learn how to process the memories. The only way I as going to be able to remove their power over me was to face them head on (get it? Head on.. cause we’re talking about the brain? Oh Hillary, not as funny when you have to explain it).
I knew I was going to have to relive some of these terrible memories in order to regain control over them, to prove to myself that it was just a bad memory and to relinquish the fear I had for them.
How did I do this?
Huge props to my psychotherapist and giving me the tools to properly process the memories, leaving them as just that, a bad memory. We used a variety of methods to try and sort through them. Ultimately, what worked for me, may not work for you. But what I can say is this: it is crucial to get your flashbacks under control and determine what your common triggers are.
I can sit here and list off all the things that I know could potentially trigger me at any time. I know what they are because I started to really pay attention to how my body reacted, how my mind would race. I don’t avoid these triggers, I used to, but what I’ve come to realize is that I cannot ignore them, and I cannot expect anyone else to avoid them. All I can do is, is face them, experience them, ride the wave so to say. When a trigger happens, I talk about it. Even if it’s just to myself like I had to when I was in the car driving to my boyfriend’s place.
I used to internalize these feelings and emotions, and avoid my triggers as much as possible... Which I will say, if you’re just starting to understand your trauma, then absolutely, avoid them. You’ll be trying to sort out enough, that there is no need to take everything on like a superhero. Even Batman needs some downtime to heal. Don’t rock the boat until you’re ready. But don’t forever internalize these feelings. This leads to the pressure cooker explosion outcome that I talked about before. I know that I am at a place mentally now where I can face my triggers regularly and 90% of the time not experience any issues.
Flashbacks are one of the most debilitating experiences when dealing with PTSD, C-PTSD, and/or traumatic experiences. I would never wish a flashback on my worst enemy. They leave you feeling helpless, and lost, and if you’re in a better state mentally it leaves you feeling like a failure. The negative self talk will come in, and start telling you all the things you know are not true.
If you are experiencing flashbacks, I highly recommend talking to someone about it. Tell them what’s going on. I also highly recommend reading the book Healing from Trauma by Jasmin Lee Cori, MS, LPC. She goes more in depth about what trauma does to your brain, how to understand it, how to work with it, and how to heal it. I will include a link to her book below. I read the book last year, but I wasn’t 100% ready to take in all the information she was giving. It is now at the top of my to read list for 2021. The book includes questions, and exercises that you can use to help figure out what your triggers are, what your biggest issues that you want to work on include, and allows you to figure out a plan of action on what needs to be done, as well as simple tools to help you get there.
If you have any questions about flashbacks, please feel free to email me, DM me on Instagram, and I will do my best to help out. But as I said before, I am not a psychiatrist, psychologist, psychotherapist, or anyone who can give actual medical advice. All I can give you is my personal experiences, and hope that I can lead you to a place where you can get the help or advice that you need.
Keep your chins up my lemons, and remember that flashbacks are fleeting, and you will be able to get through them.
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Links as listed in order above:
Link for Natalie Engelbrecht’s answer on Quora:
Other information taken from below article written by Tiffany Chi:
Jasmin Lee Cori’s book - Healing Trauma