How Trauma Turns Into Time Travel

Updated: Mar 1

Literally present, but physically & mentally in the past, flashbacks are a time-traveling survival adaptation & are considered an intrusive symptom in the DSM-V diagnosis for PTSD.


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No! I did not solve the formula for time travel ( I humbly accept my limitations!). But a very, very, very, very long time ago, our body and brain did solve the formula for surviving terrifying experiences.

Have you ever heard an old song and were immediately overcome with nostalgia? Or smell a perfume and instantly be reminded of warm moments with your gentle grandma? We can lightly relate these instances with that which is experienced during flashbacks.


Flashbacks are potent reminders of past traumas, genuinely triggered by anything that comprises an experience (e.g., smells, places, colors, faces, gestures, objects, etc.). Ordinarily, when we reflect or talk about tender storytimes with grandma, there is a sense of distance from the memory; we maintain awareness of the "now," and we are not re-experiencing the sensations, sounds, smells, emotions that came up originally (unless you're an enthusiastic storyteller!).


Quite the opposite occurs when recalling a traumatic memory. fMRI scans performed during research have shown that when an individual recalls a traumatic event, their nervous system activates with the same level of arousal that occurred during the actual event. Everyday stimuli can trigger the body and brain to tell a story the mouth can't. Repeatedly verbalizing your traumatic experience(s) can be exhausting for the nervous system and retraumatizing. Obtaining a therapist with an understanding of T.I.C is crucial to reducing the risk of retraumatization.


Flashbacks are not purposeful manifestations, and triggers tend to dwell outside of an individual's direct awareness. Flashbacks act as protective agents from repeating the past. When we notice something in our environment (i.e., a familiar face, house, car, smell, etc.) or within ourselves (i.e., emotions that accompany bodily sensation) that resembles a past traumatic time, our whole system takes action by responding as if it were happening again.


Flashbacks strip individuals of their presence, resulting in seemingly bizarre and sometimes dangerous behavior. For the onlooker, these behaviors may appear irrational because they serve no "logical" adaptive function for the present moment. Still, these behaviors are entirely "logical" life-saving adaptations for a body stuck in the past.


In my previous blog How To Cope With Fireworks I highlight how primitive parts of the brain do not use reasoning and rationality..... hinting at my quotations around "logical".

For example, a husband who tries out a new cologne, suddenly is met with a barge of verbal assaults from the unknowingly triggered wife who has time-traveled back to the moment she was held at gunpoint and robbed by a man wearing the same if not similar cologne. In essence, the wife is not reliving the experience of being robbed, she is reliving her reaction to being robbed.


Emotional reactions, including anger outbursts, panic or intense shame, are common reactions during a flashback. Without a general awareness of personal triggers and a set of techniques to work through them, individuals often live in constant fear of suddenly being overpowered by flashbacks. Flashbacks and the fear of them can severely impair functioning at work and within cherished relationships.

"I'm at a loss for words" or more clinically, "I'm intensely aroused, and my Broca's area of the brain is incredibly sluggish."

For an individual jammed up with trauma, putting their experience into words becomes nearly impossible due to changes in Broca's area of the brain when under high stress. To compensate for the loss of words, traumatic stress is expressed through other avenues such as flashbacks and nightmares.

ThoughtCo / Gary Ferster

As you begin to free yourself from the pains of the past it's typical for once avoided symptoms to momentarily increase in intensity before resolving. Flashbacks are a natural part of the healing journey, and this temporary rise in intensity makes sense, think about it! Avoidance does not resolve hurt, it simply relocates it somewhere out of our awareness. Soooooooo, when the blockades are removed these uncomfortable states return to our direct awareness with gusto!

This is why taking action to heal is one of the most courageous and admirable things one can do!

At some point or another, we've all done things to try and avoid the pains of the past (i.e., socially isolated, over ate, self-harmed, overworked, used drugs and/or alcohol etc.), but the bitter truth is, facing those pains is a non-negotiable step in the healing process.


Flashbacks can be subtle occurrences that appear to happen out of nowhere and that is a very perplexing experience!

When the current world of someone living with the wounds of trauma, is reminded of the past their right brain ( the emotional, reactive, creative side) will react as if it were in that exact past time. We now know that under intense stress, the left part of the brain ( responsible for rationalizing, making judgments, problem-solving, and reasoning) does not work up to par. It is for this reason that individuals may have no idea they are experiencing a flashback. With a hazy origin of emotions, individuals instead merely experience being full of anger, or shame, or panic. When "random" emotional waves crash upon a person, an intense search for a reason arises. These reasons are commonly found in others " Put your damn blinker!", "Your 5 minutes late for dinner!", "You don't care about me!", "No one values me, I quit!". We are not perfect, and all of us will express ourselves like this from time to time.


A defining feature between it being a ordinary slip-up or a flashback is; usually, after cooling down, we feel guilty, we take responsibility and make amends. That most likely won't happen after a flashback. The latter process takes a level of awareness (i.e.,left-brain functioning) that traumatized individuals have difficulty cultivating. Without an understanding of what that individual is experiencing, it's easy to respond to flashback reactions by matching someones emotional level by; yelling back, calling them selfish, inconsiderate or crazy, or dismissing their words or needs.


MOMENT of COMPASSION:

Imagine how confusing, frustrating, isolating, and exhausting it must be for someone to have a flashback. Imagine what it would feel like to desperately long for connection, stability, and support only to push it away. Imagine having no idea why you feel the way you do or why you hurt the people you love.



Although valid reasons, I do not believe anyone should ever be someone else's punching bag. Having compassion also means having boundaries! Your safety and the safety of your loved ones are priority number one. If you or a loved one is struggling with symptoms of PTSD, I highly recommend seeking professional help. For help working with nightmares, sounds machines from Yogasleep have proven to help. Also refer to my past blog How To Stop Having Nightmares. My site is full of helpful strategies to work with flashbacks, including grounding and befriending emotions.


Although these exercises are very useful, they do not supplement professional mental health services. I believe everyone could use support from time to time and therapy can be very helpful, but therapy is your individual choice. I do encourage you to find support if these exercises become overwhelming or you decide therapy may complement your healing process.


TIPS

1. Practice Grounding

Grounding techniques are strategies used to help create a sense of stability in the body and environment. Weighted blankets are a great non-interactive strategy to increase parasympathetic nervous system activity. Weighted blanketsprovide deep pressure stimulation, helping to ease sympathetic nervous system arousal, a hallmark of PTSD. Even wearing a backpack with added weight can be useful. Stimulating your five senses such as smelling essential oils or tapping your feet on the ground, holding something familiar are also common strategies. Try these grounding exercises.


2. Get Outside Help

Therapist acts as a safe place, in order for you to feel confident to explore the depths of yourself. Therapist offer guidance, insight and support throughout your journey. Therapist with an understanding of PTSD and C-PTSD and trained in various trauma-focused therapeutic styles such as EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, and Polyvagal Theory. Finding the therapist that works best for you may take several attempts. If your first choice doesn't work out don't get discouraged. The search is worth finding the support you deserve!


3. Meditate

Meditation is an impartial awareness, that helps you understand and befriend your thoughts and feelings. Meditation has proven to reduce over-activation in the amygdala and reverse changes in the body and brain that have occurred as a result of trauma. There are many forms of meditation all with different intentions. Meditation relaxes your mind and body and learn to decrease stress. Waking Up is a wonderful app created by neuroscientist Sam Harris and it offers a plethora of meditation options, including guided meditations, to help you explore your mind, body and soul.


4. CBD

CBD has shown to be an effective sleep aid and pain relief option. "Animal models have shown that cannabidiol (CBD) displays anxiolytic, antidepressant, antipsychotic, antiepileptic and neuroprotective properties, suggesting its potential therapeutic use for several psychiatric, neurological and drug-use disorders" ( Garcia- Gutierrez et.al, 2020). The properties of CBD have shown promising antidepressant and anxiety reducing effects. Raw Botanics Co is a great company offering a range of products, but my favorite aspect of this company ( besides the founders being PTSD and cancer survivors) is that Raw Botanics Co website provides detailed information to help you understand the benefits of terpenes, cannabinoids and adaptogens. Always do your research!



1. García-Gutiérrez, M.,S., Navarrete, F., Gasparyan, A., Austrich-Olivares, A., Sala, F., & Manzanares, J. (2020). Cannabidiol: A potential new alternative for the treatment of anxiety, depression, and psychotic disorders. Biomolecules, 10(11) doi:http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.stockton.edu/10.3390/biom10111575


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