People who are struggling with PTSD are not the only people who experience involuntary memories. In fact, involuntary memories are a pretty normal part of being human; but the involuntary memories of PTSD are very different. The types of involuntary memory are the topic of this weeks blog.
Whenever I smell Chantilly Lace I think of my great grandmother. I can see her stove top coffee percolator and hear her telling me that “polite young ladies don’t ask their elders age.” This is an example of an involuntary autobiographical memory. Not chosen, but not necessarily unpleasant. Remembering her like this always brings a smile to my heart.
After I give a presentation, while I’m driving home I will replay every mistake I made. I will replay every “uhm” and every poor word choice. I’ll even try to get myself to let it go, just to find myself replaying my worse mistakes again a moment later. This is an example of an Intrusive memory. Not chosen, and not pleasant.
A flashback, the third type of involuntary memory, is a very different experience. Like the first two types of involuntary memories, flashbacks occur spontaneously. Flashbacks also have one very unique aspect –re-experiencing. When an individual is experiencing a flashback, they are not standing in today looking back at the memory. During a flashback they are, partially or fully, in the memory.
The brain behaves very differently during a flashback than it does during other two types of memory. During the other two types of memory the areas of the brain responsible for episodic memory (personal experience stories), emotional processing and emotion are all highly activated. Those are not the areas of the brain that are most active during a flashback. During a flashback the areas responsible for vision, visual memory, arousal, and motor activation are all highly activated. But the area of the brain responsible for higher processing is deactivated and the brains attention is turned inward to the point of closing out most of the world around us. This doesn’t happen during the other types of memory, which is why I can still drive home while remembering my grandmother or beating myself up for my less than perfect presentation but should not be driving during a flashback.
While Involuntary autobiographical and intrusive memories are a pretty normal part of life, flashbacks are only experienced by people struggling with traumatic events and PTSD. If you think you may be experiencing flashbacks, there is hope. Flashback memories can be resolved.
I am an EMDR trained therapist in Austin Texas. I specialize in working with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), CSA (Childhood Sexual Abuse) and generally helping adults heal trauma. If you are ready to start your healing journey, please contact me or a trauma therapist near you.