My last therapy session left me so flooded with flashbacks. It’s scary when it happens. It’s like a little more than a picture that flashes in my mind.
What Happens in Your Brain During a PTSD Flashback?
I found this article that seems to explain what its really like when someone has a flashback.
Although people often associate PTSD with veterans affected by the horrors of war, the condition can develop in anyone who has experienced a dangerous, shocking, or life-threatening event such as rape, childhood abuse, or a serious accident. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, PTSD will affect 6.8% of U.S. adults in their lifetime. The condition is defined by symptoms like panic attacks, depression, and insomnia, but one of the most characteristic and debilitating symptoms of PTSD is something called “flashbacks.”
Flashbacks are like waking nightmares. They are intense, repeated episodes of re-living the traumatic experience while you’re fully awake. Flashbacks can come on suddenly and feel uncontrollable. They are more like a nightmare than a memory because sufferers often cannot distinguish between the flashback and reality, feeling like the traumatic experience is happening again, in the moment. Flashbacks are vivid, sensory experiences. During one, a sufferer might see, hear, and smell things they saw, heard and smelled during the traumatic moment.
How can flashbacks be such an all-consuming, visceral experience? How can they transport you back to the traumatic experience almost instantly? To understand that, we’ll explain what’s happening in your brain when a flashback occurs.
To understand what happens in your brain during a flashback, you first need to understand how memories are formed and how trauma disrupts the way this process normally works.
What Happens to Different Parts of the Brain
Memory is a complex process that involves many parts of your brain, but to keep it simple, we’ll focus on two of the key players: the amygdala and the hippocampus. The amygdala is associated with emotional memory — especially the formation of fear-related memories. It evolved to ensure your survival by strongly encoding memories of past dangers you’ve experienced so that you recognize and respond to those threats if you see them again.
The hippocampus, the other region of your brain heavily involved in memory, acts like the brain’s historian. It catalogs all the different details of an experience like who was there, where it happened, and what time of day it was into one cohesive event you can consciously recollect as a memory. In your typical, day-to-day life, your amygdala and hippocampus work together to turn your experiences into distinct long-term memories.