One of the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder is flashbacks. For car accident survivors, this often means reliving the moment of the crash. The feelings come back, followed by the shock and the fear. During flashbacks, it’s nearly impossible for the survivor to think about anything else. What’s happening to the brain during flashbacks? What makes it so survivors are unable to focus on anything other than the crash?
According to trauma research, two parts of the brain are impacted by PTSD: the hippocampus and amygdala. The moment the accident occurs, the traumatic memory sears itself in the amygdala, which is responsible for the brain’s emotional response. In contrast, the hippocampus—the storage unit for new memories—is only lightly activated.
In instances of trauma, the amygdala increases the fear the survivor feels. The hippocampal processing decreases, making it difficult to bind and distort the memories of the accident into a single memory. Negative memories have shown increased activity in the amygdala, but it is the order and how memories fit that are not accurately interpreted.
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. And because 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.