Flashbacks

I’m a trained Counsellor with a Psychology background, however most of my work has focussed on working with anxiety. In my third sector work I have conducted multiple research projects into the benefits of working alongside counsellors and psycho-therapists to specifically address the high levels of anxiety, panic, trauma symptoms and flashbacks experienced by their clients. The idea behind this approach came from acknowledging that high levels of anxiety can sometimes get in the way of full and meaningful engagement with the therapy process, which can sometimes be off putting for people who would otherwise really like to experience the benefits of counselling support. Flashbacks are commonly experienced by people who have experienced any kind of trauma, and they really don’t feel very nice. My approach is to demystify the mechanism by which they operate, and to teach people how it’s possible to dial down their intensity, essentially neutralising the negative emotional component of the recurrently retrieved memory.

Understanding the nature of the anxiety loop gives us clear insight about how flashbacks operate. Flashbacks are a phenomenon of memory paired with emotion. The flashbacks that cause us problems are the ones where negative experiences are paired with the distressing emotion that was felt at the time of the trauma. The intensity of flashbacks often increases over time due to an emotional snowballing effect, where each time the memory is experienced, along with the original distressing emotion, there is also the emotional response that we have in reaction to the flashback itself. Usually dread, anxiety, fear or anger.

Paired Associations.

In the 1960s behavioural psychologists discovered that some of our actions and reactions, particularly when it comes basic functioning and survival activities are established are learned by the experiences that we have. This is a different type of learning to the learning we do deliberately, where we take in information and synthesise it so that we understand it. It’s more about the primitive learning that takes place mostly outside of our awareness. Simply put, we have experiences, which elicit responses from us, both emotional and physiological, and our brains pair them together, as one learning. Taken even further, mixed in with this learning is often greater context, such as where we were, what smells, sights, sounds, tastes, time of day etc, were taking place at the time of the experience. It’s a little like taking a screenshot, which encapsulates all the data, and then saves it away in a file in your brain alongside any connected feelings and sensations. This process doesn’t just happen with distressing situations, it isn’t discerning about what is saved, it saves all experiences with emotional content, and the more salient or intense the emotion is, the greater the importance of the memory in the hierarchy of retrievable memories. If we have a good experience in a certain place with a certain person, when we are reminded of it, or we need to retrieve the information to help us to make a decision, the detail is still there, including the feelings, sensations, and environmental details.

Think of a time that something funny or embarrassing happened. You won’t just remember words, or visuals, you will also remember emotions, and to an extent you’ll feel them again, even though they are just from a retrieved memory and are not happening in reality in real time. So, what is the point of this?

Once we have the saved experience tucked away, our minds use this as a referral guide for all future experiences, so that we don’t have to keep repeating learnings over again, it’s like a shortcut folder on the desktop of a computer, easily accessible to us whenever we need it. When we encounter anything that reminds our brain of the original learning, it will make it available to us for reference, in case we need the information to help us to navigate the new situation. It’s simply the way our brains save the information of our experiences in time and space, a recording of our lives for us to access whenever we need to. It’s really useful, but what has this got to do with flashbacks?

Human beings, and other living creatures are designed to move away from what is uncomfortable, painful, or dangerous. When that discomfort originates within us we have nowhere to escape to, but we still get the strong emotional message telling us that something bad is happening that we need to fight or flee from.  When something reminds us of a distressing experience (often referred to as triggers) our mind races off to retrieve examples for us, thinking we might need information to help us in the current moment. That memory, a snapshot in time of the experience, the distress, the context, leaps into our consciousness, and before we know it, we are feeling not only the horror of the original experience, but also the sentiment of our current response, which is understandably likely to be at the very least a reluctancy to be bombarded with this memory.

Unfortunately, based on the way that the brain learns, as described above, our reluctant and upset reaction, becomes part of flashback experience, adding itself to the already saved snapshot of the original experience. The unpleasant experience of the flashback is now not only a memory with a negative emotional component, but it also is perceived by us as a personal terror threat that might visit us without our consent, if we encounter an environmental trigger, or an internal trigger in the form of a stray thought or unwelcome memory.

Memories are linked to other memories. Similarities tend to be filed together. When we remember one negative encounter, it can often open the filing cabinet drawer to any that the brain has identified as similar, either in emotional content, or experiential content, or even just because they took place in a similar environment. For this reason, for those of us who have experienced trauma, therapy, and the things we are encouraged to do to recover from distressing experiences can bring about a dread of opening such a Pandora’s Box of experiences. So how does the Out of the Loop process help with flashbacks?

Out of the Loop is about working with our internal feedback systems and takes advantage of these learning and filing processes in a conscious and deliberate way. Because we work with the existing feedback loops rather than in opposition to them, the process reduces distress by creating new paired associations which replace the distressing ones. This is a naturally occurring process, we have all had experiences where something that used to bother us now feel neutral and unimportant. All we are doing when working with flashbacks is putting this process of neutralisation into action in a deliberate way, rather than waiting for time to erode and replace their importance. Afterwards they no longer have the power to overwhelm us, leaving us free to explore and make meaning of our experiences with more confidence.

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