Many people tend to think of flashbacks as a visual “flash” back in time to a particular horrifying incident (e.g., a car accident) that triggers the same emotional and physical reaction (e.g., panic and tension) that was felt at the time of the original incident. Flashbacks can also be understood as a slower or more chronic repetition of a patterned physical, emotional, or cognitive response to a repeated experience (e.g., of frequent sadness or fear in childhood). This repeated experience becomes stored in the nervous system as an implicit memory, aka procedural learning.
Read below for a little more background on flashbacks. Or visit this Neuroplasticity video to demonstrate and honor that shifting a repeated habit can take practice, but it is possible for the brain and body to build new habits that can replace a reliance on the old ones. Here are some tools for practicing that shift when it comes to emotional/cognitive/somatic habits that Janina Fisher calls a “long, slow, chronic flashback:”
Identifying a return to old familiar stuck places as a flashback and learning to take care of that part inside us that is storing and recycling this intense feeling, thought, sensation, or behavior habit helps us recognize that this may be an opportunity to help make different that old belief, sensation, emotion, or behavior (which may have been on steady re-fresh/re-play over and over and over for years).
Lisa Ferentz, LCSW-C in her book, Treating Self-Destructive Behaviors in Trauma Survivors: A Clinician's Guide (2012), provides an accessible and effective tool for encouraging "dual awareness" during flashbacks. Use this tool during moments of re-experiencing to "watch" what is happening and MAKE IT DIFFERENT by REMINDING yourself that "I can [NOW] access support. I am not alone."
Ferentz, L. (2012). Treating self-destructive behaviors in trauma survivors: A clinician’s guide. Routledge. | Available on Indiebound.org
Riding a bike is a great example of procedural learning - once you’ve learned it, that “skill” or “procedure” comes naturally to you. If the “skill” your body-mind learned in the face of childhood challenges was sadness or fear, then years later that “skill” of feeling sad and afraid can return as easily and unconsciously as riding a bike when situations arise that arouse similar feelings (e.g., feeling left out or feeling misunderstood). Flashbacks can be all-consuming and show up in a gripping “hijack” that repeats itself over and over in one’s life (e.g., chronic depression or chronic anxiety), a body sensation that repeats itself over and over (e.g., chronic heaviness or chronic vigilance/arousal), and/or a cognition that repeats itself over and over (e.g., “There is something wrong with me” or “I can’t ever put down my guard!”).
When we can begin to label a state of being “hijacked” into an old familiar patterned emotional state, physical symptom picture, or cognitive belief a flashback, we can begin to get a certain distance from it and recognize we can learn how to “help” the place or part inside of us that stores that chronic flashback (that may retreat from time to time, but returns in full force and often leaves a person feeling that is their “authentic” self because it is such a steady, reliable companion (responding to circumstances in current life with much stronger intensity than the situation might call for, but which the “flash” back to an old feeling may help the reaction crescendo).
Somatic, cognitive, and emotional flashbacks often do not show up associated with a particular place or time but rather appear as a chronic or episodic re-experiencing of an old intense feeling or thought or sensation. For example, shame thoughts/feelings (e.g., “There is something wrong with me!” or “I’m not good enough!”) can seem like they are caused by a current “reality.” However, what if they are triggered by something from a current experience that prompts an implicit memory, a flashback, or a re-living of old learning? What if a thought, feeling, and/or sensation response comes from a much earlier time when we were not equipped with a broader context/understanding. So instead of concluding, “There is something going on in the environment that feels scary. It’s not my fault. I do not have the power to change or stop it.”
Fisher, Ferentz, and Brach would all remind us this is a practice that invites many rounds.
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