What Does a PTSD Flashback as a Body Memory Feel Like?
Flashbacks are one of the main symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but many people haven't heard of a PTSD body memory flashback. I experience PTSD body memory flashbacks. Here's what they feel like.
Along with nightmares, movies and TV shows frequently use flashbacks to demonstrate the challenges of a character suffering from PTSD. From Chris Lyle's flashback-fueled meltdowns in American Sniper to Charlie's emotional memories in the Perks of Being a Wallflower, flashbacks are often the first symptom to come to mind when people discuss PTSD.
I first started getting PTSD body memory flashbacks when I was in college. Because my trauma lasted for so long, my flashbacks have been unique. I don't have a single, full-picture memory that plays out in my head as you see in movies. There are certain memories I experience in this way, but a lot of my traumatic memories are tucked away in my mind. Like many victims of child abuse, I have trouble remembering the details of my younger years.
Since there are a lot of holes in my childhood memories, I experience my flashbacks through body memories instead. Body memories can be described as somatic memories expressed through physiological changes to the body.1 Put simply, my body feels what it was feeling at the time of the traumatic event.
How a Body Memory Presents Itself
It differs depending on the trigger but my flashback body memories usually start with a hot flash. My body begins to sweat, my heart picks up speed, and small noises around me grow louder and louder. I get this sick feeling in my stomach that is similar to nausea but better described as the feeling of pure panic, like waking up and realizing you slept through an exam. My triggers for a body memory flashback can be anything from an angry tone of voice to the sound of a punching bag being hit at my gym.
For a long time, I wasn't aware that I was experiencing body memories. The feelings I get during these flashbacks are very similar to the ones I get during a panic attack. It was--and is--hard to distinguish the two symptoms from each other. My therapist eventually helped me see the connection, and understanding my body memory flashbacks has helped me understand my trauma better overall.
Dealing with Body Memories as Flashbacks
In a strange way, body memories help validate what I went through. The way I feel during a flashback is the same way I felt as a young girl trapped in a violent household with no way to escape. Remembering how I felt during my childhood helps me have empathy towards myself and respect for my healing journey.
Dealing with body memory flashbacks in the present can be difficult. The best way I have found to cope so far is to give myself space. My trauma happened at the hands of other people, so getting away from people is the first thing I do when I start to feel an episode happening. Going somewhere quiet and cool to let the body memory pass helps me calm down faster.
Everybody experiences flashbacks differently, and the way you cope with yours will be unique to you. While they can be painful reminders of your trauma, it is possible to learn how to live with them. Pay attention to how you feel during a flashback and give yourself what you need during that moment. Above all, be compassionate towards yourself. Self-love and self-acceptance are the first steps toward a peaceful life.
Have you experienced body memory flashbacks? What do they feel like to you? Leave your comments below.
- Bhattacharya, S., "The Lifelong Cost of Burying Our Traumatic Experiences." New Scientist, November 2014.
Avery, B. (2019, July 22). What Does a PTSD Flashback as a Body Memory Feel Like?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, July 15 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2019/7/what-does-a-ptsd-flashback-as-a-body-memory-feel-like
Author: Beth Avery
I treated trauma symptoms with alcohol for many years, until I quit drinking a year and a half ago. For the first year I went through phases of dissociation on and off, some lasting as long as two weeks. As I dissociate less often, I find that I am now having a body memory flashback about once each month for the past three months. The first one was on my knees, head to floor, weeping, and shaking. The second one was lying on my side in bed and clenching up in my arms, shoulders and torso, but my legs folded up but rubbing against one another. These each lasted ten to fifteen minutes in extremis but the aftereffect lasted days. Hypervigilance, certain colors (red, especially) seemed to be everywhere. The most recent was today and I was able to remain standing while my upper body clenched and shook, arms pressed to sides, fists clenched. I was able to get some tissue, I was able to put the kettle on. Afterward I went to the psychologist and by tonight I feel somewhat at peace, as if the body is learning which chemical to send out to soothe and exhaust me. At last. I am hopeful that the body is finally starting to heal after so many assaults.
Most times I'm unaware while it is happening. I'll just feel an extremely overwhelming fear, pain, grief, guilt, and sadness. Then my eyes will just start pouring. There's no clear image and I start shaking and sweating. Its the most terrifying thing during school. People try to help or ask what's wrong but they can't help but think I'm weird. To be honest the worst is when I'm doing anything slightly more than friendly with someone it triggers me and I freeze. I don't say yes, no, or stop just freeze. It has caused for me to be assaulted three times more than before my original trauma. I can't even be in a relationship at this point.
Hi, thanks for sharing your experience. I'm sorry you're struggling like this. I definitely recommend talking to a therapist about it--my counselor has really helped me understand my own body memories better. I know it's tough, but you can get through this with time!
Thanks for this.
I've been having this for about 15 years since I experienced a series of traumatic events when I was 14.
It's taken me such as long time to start to make sense of my flashbacks because they often don't come with a clear video or picture in my mind, rather a feeling of terror and pain that freezes my body as I interpret this as 'the world is ending', which is what I thought back then.
I'm just learning how to describe and share this experience with friends, family and professionals. It has been a painful, confusing journey but I'm very thankful to now be piecing it together and able to share, as I'm getting a lot of warmth and understanding from others even if they haven't experienced anything like it.