What Happens in the Brain During Flashbacks

Photo by Vlad Kutepov on Unsplash

At the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) conference, I had the opportunity to see presentations and learn about the latest research in healing trauma.

The first keynote address was The Healthy Aging Brain, presented by Lou Cozolino, Ph.D. He is a professor at Pepperdine University, has a private practice in Beverly Hills, CA., and is the author of The Healthy Aging Brain.

You might be wondering what this topic has to do with trauma. It has everything to do with it.

While Dr. Cozolino’s purpose was learning about the aging brain, I deduced that his findings can also be seen as a discovery in the healing of trauma.

On pages 13-14, Dr. Cozolino claims that “the human brain functions to connect us to one another.” He continues with, “Compared to other animals, humans are born with extremely immature brains with an immense number of uncommitted neurons. However, it is precisely this latent neural potential that allows our brains to be maximally influenced by the particular social and physical environments into which we are born.”

Therefore, he was saying that:

  • The brain continues to grow as we age – it doesn’t stop at age 7 as claimed by earlier research
  • Brain growth or stagnation depends on our relationships with one another

In his chapter called “The Maturation of Emotion,” he states that “when we feel that we are under threat, the control of brain processing shifts to primitive subcortical neural networks that specialize in immediate survival”, showing that “anxiety and fear actually inhibit the types of diverse cortical processing that contribute to good judgement, self-awareness and compassion.” (p.148)

Therefore, the functioning of the brain diminishes. This part of the brain is known as the amygdala. ” … the amygdala catalogues past threats to apply them to future situations. Unlike our fragile memory for names and dates,  the amygdala has a tenacious memory for what has frightened us and its very activation results in chemical processes that enhance memory for fearful experiences.” (p. 151)

Basically, when the survivor feels a fear of threat, whether the threat is real or not, latent memories appear. The word “memory” of the trauma is a grave misnomer. Actually, the survivor feels as though he/she is experiencing the trauma as though it were happening for the first time.

Utilizing, qigong meditation, I have counseled survivors as they regress to the time of the trauma. Their faces, their speech, and their behavior revert back to the age when the trauma first occurred. Their biochemical body also takes on the symptoms as it did when the trauma first occurred.

During one of her sessions with me, an incest survivor – a woman in her early 40’s – regressed to the age of 15.  She felt she was being coerced by her father and his girlfriend to take part in a sex orgy. Before my eyes, she took on the look of a terrified young girl. She crawled beneath my chair, terrified that she be dragged out and forced to take part in this horror. I observed as her eyes dilated, palms sweated, and heard her gasping for breath as she whispered what she felt was happening to her.

At that moment, even though I was with her, she felt alone, isolated, and powerless. The amygdala was fully activated, and her capacity to discern present from past was virtually non-existent.  The fact that I reminded her with soft repetitive statements, i.e., you’re safe here with me, it’s not happening, you’re having a flashback, you’re not alone, I’m with you – all helped her feel calmer and get back in touch with reality.

This correlates with Dr. Cozolino’s findings that “With the amygdala, as with (wild) horses, taming occurs within the context of an understanding relationship – the establishment through control and regulation through a combination of affection and limit setting.”

After the flashback receded, my client talked about her experience. This was the first time she was able to feel the terror of that incident without dissociating. Before she left my office, she was able to verbalize that what helped her through was knowing that I was there, whereas she had been alone during the actual rape.

I cannot stress enough the importance of a support system with other survivors, family, and friends, including professional help.