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Coping with Flashbacks: Explicit and Implicit Memories
Flashbacks are rarely like you see in the movies where a war vet with PTSD is triggered so badly that he doesn't know where he is or what he's doing. More often flashbacks are a sudden flooding of intense emotions that seem to come out of nowhere but not to the point of disorienting the person. Instead, the person simply overreacts to the present situation.
To really understand flashbacks and emotional flooding, you must understand the difference between explicit memories and implicit memories.
Explicit memories are memories that are recognized as memories, such as “I remember the first time I hit a homerun in Little League.”
Implicit memories are memories that we do not recognize as memories, which is helpful in many situations, such as when we drive, because we don't have to explicitly remember how to drive each time we slip into the driver's seat. However, implicit memories can cause problems when they are triggered by something in the present moment that reminds our protective brain of past pain, and then we become flooded with fear, sadness, anger, or shame. And since we do not recognize these reactions as memories, we believe the memory is happening right here, right now when in fact it's not. As a result we may react in ways that are not at all appropriate to the present situation, causing us problems.
For example: As a child, no matter how good my grades were or how many hits I got in a baseball game, my father always criticized me, causing much shame and pain. Now, flash forward 25 years, and my wife says to me, "Honey, I think you hung the picture a bit crooked," and I instantly blow up in anger. Why? Well, because my threat detector in the brain reacted to her constructive criticism based on the implicit memories of never doing anything good enough for my father, flooding me with shame, pain, and anger.
Here's another example: I walk into the mall and suddenly become flooded by panic because the protector in my brain recognized the smell of the cologne worn by the man who abused me when I was a child, so I go running back to my car in fear for my life with no idea what I am running from other than my own fear.
As you can see, implicit memories of past pain and trauma can be disruptive, affecting relationships, careers, and emotionally stability. So, how can you recognize implicit memories? Well, if an emotional reaction seems like an over-reaction, or simply doesn’t make sense to you, then you might be dealing with implicit memories. Or, if you suddenly feel flooded by fear, anxiety, or panic and can't pinpoint any obvious threat, then you're probably dealing with implicit memories. The same might be true if you're suddenly flooded with shame, guilt, sadness, or anger for no obvious reason.
So, the key point is this: Any overreactions might indicate that implicit memories of past pain and trauma have been triggered by something in the present moment, and in order to heal and grow, you must first learn to identify and recognize these triggers.
So, what can you do when you recognize you're overreacting and probably triggered by implicit memories of past pain? Well, you can try grounding yourself back to the present moment by focusing on your breathing, or meditating, or doing a relaxation exercise, or using the “twos” technique by asking yourself, “What are two things I see, two things I hear, two things I smell, two things I taste, and two things I feel through touch?” And then you continue until your body and mind have become grounded back to the present moment.
You can also remind yourself that you're safe right here right now and that your body/mind is just reacting to some present stimulus based on an implicit memory and not present reality.
You can also remind yourself that you're a powerful adult who can take care of yourself. This is important because many unhelpful implicit memories are of painful childhood experiences, which will make you feel small and powerless like the child you were. So it helps to remind yourself that are no longer powerless.
Once calm, you can try to identify the stimulus that triggered the reaction. In the example above, the husband could try to identify the pain that fueled the angry outburst at his wife, which could lead to recognition of the intense shame and pain triggered by her comment. Next he could search his memories for similar feelings in the past, which might allow him to connect his present pain to his "never-good-enough dad," thereby uncovering an implicit memory and making it explicit, which then will offer him increased awareness to manage such triggers and flashbacks in the future.
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