PTSD Flashbacks: What Accident Survivors Are Facing

Sad woman

When someone develops post-traumatic stress, the event haunts them for months—sometimes years—afterwards. The way the “haunting” manifests is through involuntary, terrifying playbacks of the moments and feelings leading up to the traumatic event. Doctors call these “flashbacks.”

Take car accident survivors, for instance. Someone who was in a serious head-on collision might experience the terror and dread leading up to the impact every time they see the same type of vehicle pass them on the road. Facing oncoming traffic might become a trigger for reliving the accident over and over. Flashbacks are exhausting, terrifying, and violent drains on our quality of life.

But what are they? Why does our brain want to replay the most terrifying moments of our lives over and over? What purpose are they supposed to serve?

Trauma researchers believe it has to do with how trauma changes our brain chemistry. In our brains, there are two regions affected by traumatic events: the amygdala, which governs emotional response; and the hippocampus, which stores new memories. When traumatic events happen, they trigger a strong response in the amygdala...but not the hippocampus.

As a result, the brain sears the emotions of the moment into our response mechanism, but not the events themselves—meaning the emotional response is not bound or associated with a specific memory. That’s why trauma victims often misremember the details of their own accidents, getting details wrong or remembering them in the wrong order.

How the Brain Records Trauma Affects Our Daily Lives

You might see where this is going: an accident survivor’s brain has a deeply-branded emotional recollection of the accident, but the actual events are harder to recall.

So, if the survivor experiences a triggering stressor tied to the accident, the amygdala is what is responsible for the flashback. Since the hippocampus doesn’t activate properly during the crash, there is nothing telling the brain that the new situation is different from the accident. There’s nothing telling the survivor they are not in danger. There is no context put into the memory, often causing the survivor to go into fight-or-flight mode.

Flashbacks may be helped by therapy. This can be used to identify triggers and find ways to deal with them productively. Both flashbacks and disassociation are signs that a survivor hasn’t fully coped with their experience. By seeking treatment, you can help your emotions and your memory reckon with each other—lessening the frequency and intensity of flashbacks.

HHR is dedicated to helping car accident survivors get the justice they deserve. If you have experienced an accident, contact our personal injury attorneys to help you through the process.

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