Mental Time Travel & Emotional Flashbacks.

The neurocognitive processes involved in flashbacks.

Photo by Harry Cunningham on Unsplash

I found emotional flashbacks one of the most debilitating symptoms of complex posttraumatic stress syndrome (CPTSD). I could be having a fantastic day and all of a sudden everything would spin out of control.

Emotional flashbacks feel exactly like re-experiencing a traumatic event or series of events, and though they can occur due to stress or the anticipation of stress, they also present without any explanation.

An emotional flashback includes the following:

  • Speech, language, and comprehension dysfunction.
  • Difficulty breathing (either shallow or gasping).
  • Irrational emotions of anger, fear, and paranoia.
  • Heart palpitations.
  • Sweating.
  • Incontinence.
  • Stomach cramps.
  • Dry mouth.
  • Dizziness.
  • Fainting.
  • Hearing loss.
  • Memory loss.

Emotional flashbacks feel like panic attacks except that flashbacks are rooted in past emotional trauma and can have little or nothing to do with what is happening at the time.

Some researchers refer to the neurocognitive processes that lead to emotional flashbacks as mental time travel. Autobiographical memories (AMs) are one of those neurocognitive processes that give us a glimpse into our past, present, and future.

“Through a phenomenon known as mental time travel, we are not only able to experience ourselves in the past, but we are also able to experience ourselves in the future.” — Nadia Rahman & Adam D. Brown.

Mental time travel helps us to solve future problems, make decisions, and set and implement goals that are the same or similar to those events. People with PTSD have altered AMs which disrupt normal functioning and create traumatic responses to unrelated problems and decisions.

OGM or over-general memory occurs when people with PTSD demonstrate an inability to recall events with specific detail, hence the tendency for AMs to spill over into unrelated events.

Photo by Dan Cristian Pădureț on Unsplash

Over half of participants with symptoms of OGM had success managing PTSD through specificity training in cognitive processing therapy.

Other major alterations to AMs in PTSD include:

  • Changes in the emotional intensity of a particular type of memory.
  • Variations in the availability and coherence of different memory types.
  • Increases in intrusive, emotionally-laden memories and prospections.
  • Greater centrality of traumatic experiences to self-identity.

Emotional flashbacks are also known as involuntary and intrusive AMs. Involuntary and intrusive AMs both occur spontaneously, except that non-intrusive involuntary AMs can go unnoticed.

Studies show that people with PTSD overestimate how often they experience involuntary AMs. Also, rumination of events may explain why specific details of non-traumatic memories are reduced, yet their memories of traumatic events can be rich in detail and emotion.

Further research on mental time travel and its contribution to emotional flashbacks would support treatment for PTSD, CPTSD, and related disorders.

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Write Mind Matters

BA(psych), GradDipPsych(student), DipHlthSc(NatNut)|Parenting, personality disorders & trauma.