Study: PTSD Flashbacks May Not Be Processed Like Memories

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PTSD flashbacks can be debilitating, as this person is suffering from.
February 5, 2024

PTSD flashbacks are truly terrifying situations for people who suffer from this difficult mental health condition. When triggered, people who suffer from PTSD are often unable to function for a time. Those of us with loved ones who have seen their PTSD flashbacks know all too well how terrifying these experiences are even to witness. Someone we love is suddenly all but crippled with fear and anxiety, and it’s as if we cannot reach them.

So what really happens during PTSD flashbacks? How come those who suffer from PTSD cannot simply “snap out of it” when people try to help them do so? How do some PTSD sufferers not come to understand in the moment that they have been triggered and to just work through it? Are people with PTSD aware that what they’re experiencing is just a very intense memory?

According to a recent study, maybe not. We’re going to get into how people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder process PTSD flashbacks. It could change the way a lot of people perceive these trying experiences. If any or all of this sounds familiar, contact our team of mental health professionals at SoCal Empowered today to discuss your situation.

About the PTSD Flashbacks Study

The study, entitled, “Neural patterns differentiate traumatic from sad autobiographical memories in PTSD,” was published in the journal Nature Neuroscience. You can access the link here, but it’s paywalled. You can read an overview of the study for free at Yale News. The article appears there because the study was co-led by researchers from Yale.

28 subjects, all of whom had been diagnosed with PTSD, took part. In the first stage of the study, they were asked a series of questions relating to several different experiences. These included events that led to trauma, sadness and to a state of relaxation. These stories from their pasts were written down for later use.

Next, the subjects underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI scans. These scans map brain activity based on blood flow. The researchers then read the subjects their stories back involving sadness or relaxation, paying particular attention to their hippocampus. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that forms our memories from our experiences. They found that when the subjects heard sad or relaxing stories, the blood flows to their brains were largely normal and similar within the group of 28.

That all changed when researchers read the subjects the stories of their traumatic experiences. Upon hearing these stories, each subject displayed a unique level and type of activity in his or her hippocampus. The brain activity was not only individualized, but highly fragmented instead of largely continuous and uniform as was the case in response to the other stories.

What This Could Tell Us About PTSD Flashbacks

These highly individualized and somewhat chaotic internal responses to traumatic experiences could shed important insight on PTSD flashbacks. When hearing sad or relaxing stories, the subjects displayed brain activity that suggested that they knew these were memories. When hearing about traumatic experiences, the nature of their brain activity suggested that they were not responding to them as though they were memories at all.

Instead, their responses almost suggested that they were, in their own minds, reliving those experiences as though they were happening again in real time. When we endure trauma, our brains tend to become somewhat “scattered” in terms of our thoughts and our brain activity. The fMRI scans revealed that when someone suffers PTSD flashbacks, the same type of activity occurs.

Is the Term, “PTSD Flashback” a Misnomer?

While going down the road of semantics can lead nowhere quickly, this PTSD flashbacks study does potentially shed a bright light on these troubling situations. The results should also help to explain why, as we motioned above, someone with PTSD who is triggered cannot simply “snap out of it” or “get ahold of himself” and move on. That person’s brain is reacting in such a way that doing so is all but impossible.

Hopefully, this study will help shape the treatment approach to these situations. Specifically, people may someday be able to construct narratives surrounding these flashbacks in hopes that they can minimize the sometimes-debilitating symptoms that arrive with them. Overall, this is an important discovery. If nothing else, it will help everyday people who do not have PTSD understand how difficult this condition is to live with.

The Scope of the Problem

One of the most troubling aspects of PTSD is its prevalence. According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, as many as 13 million Americans may be suffering from PTSD in some form or fashion. While many of us think of military veterans when discussing PTSD and flashbacks, combat is far from the only trigger for these episodes.

Common events in addition to military combat that can ultimately lead to the development of PTSD include:

  • Surviving physical or sexual assault
  • Witnessing physical or sexual assault
  • Surviving any form of abuse
  • Surviving a traffic accident
  • Living through a natural disaster

This is far from an exhaustive list. Almost any traumatic event or events can lead to PTSD and its corresponding flashbacks. We discuss the nature of PTSD here, so feel free to take a deeper dive into it if you are concerned about its presence in your life or that of a loved one.

How SoCal Empowered Can Help

PTSD flashbacks are very difficult to endure for anyone suffering from this condition. They are also deeply troubling for family members. They can arise at almost any time and can remove any ability for a person to function. No one should have to live with this constant possibility hanging over their heads.

The good news is that PTSD can be treated. Our team at SoCal Empowered has helped many people with PTSD take the fight to this disease and learn more about managing its symptoms. If you think it’s time to get some help, please contact our team today. We will listen to your situation and we will help you find the right resource for help, whether it’s with us or someone else. Get started on getting on top of this situation so you can regain the health and happiness you deserve.

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