Understanding flashbacks, dissociation, flooding, & numbing
“I was travelling along okay and then ‘BANG’, from nowhere, I was straight back there. It spun me out. I had no idea what was happening.”
A flashback, or involuntary recurrent memory, is a psychological phenomenon in which a person has a sudden, usually powerful, vivid, and 'new' re-experiencing of a past experience, or elements of a past experience. These experiences can be happy, sad, exciting, or any other emotion. The term is used when the memory is recalled involuntarily, and/or when it is so intense that the person 'relives' the experience, unable to fully recognise it as memory, and not something that is happening in 'real time':
- When they occur, the survivor is experiencing the past as if it were happening today.
- As it happens, it is as if the survivor forgets that the he has an 'adult' self that is available for comfort, protection, and grounding.
- The extreme feelings and body sensations are frightening because they are disconnected to the present, and often happen unexpectedly.
- Flashbacks are sometimes thought to occur because the survivor may be at a stage to be ready to remember the experience and integrate it with his regular memory.
Flashbacks are often triggered through the senses:
- Visual images: Seeing something that resembles the original abuse (e.g., faces, places).
- Auditory sensations: Sounds that remind the survivor of the abuse (e.g., breathing, hearing someone's anger).
- Emotional memories: Re-experiencing intrusive or constrictive feelings from the past (e.g., fear of someone in authority, rage).
- Body memories: Physical sensations resembling past experiences (e.g., gagging, suffocating).
- Other sensory memories: Smells or tastes (e.g., alcohol, body odour).
Dissociation describes a wide range of experiences, from a mild detachment from immediate surroundings, to a more severe detachment from physical and emotional reality. The major characteristic of dissociation involves a detachment from reality, rather than a loss of reality (as it happens in psychosis).
Dissociation can be used as a coping mechanism in seeking to master, minimise, or tolerate stress—including boredom or internal conflict. It can also involve common events, such as daydreaming while driving, a sense that self or the world is unreal, loss of memory, and forgetting identity or assuming a new self. Dissociation can be triggered by trauma, but may be preceded only by stress, substance abuse, or no identifiable trigger at all.
Dissociation is often characterised by:
- Elements of a memory drop out.
- Disconnectedness between awareness of present and past.
- Disconnectedness between thoughts and feelings.
- Experiencing being outside present time and space.
- Experiencing being outside one's own body.
Numbing occurs when a person avoids feelings from the present, in particular feelings that may have been present when the traumatic experience occurred. Numbing reflects a constrictive reaction, as depicted in The Hangover of Trauma. Feelings can be numbed, body sensations may be absent, and cognitive awareness of these shifts in perception may be quite limited.
Flooding occurs when a person is overwhelmed by the feelings that are associated with an unprocessed memory, or that have been avoided for a period of time. Flooding reflects an intrusive reaction, as depicted in The Hangover of Trauma. The more one is in a flooded state, the more one is distant from the 'here and now' consciousness.
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