The fire service uses a tetrahedron to describe fire. Fire has three elements: oxygen, heat and fuel. The fourth element is IGNITION, which starts the chain reaction between the elements. Fire happens in an internal combustion engine. Fuel, air and heat are present, but without the spark from the spark plug, nothing happens.
Flashbacks can also be described using a tetrahedron.
There is an event (which is actually the recollection), the impact and the reactions or defences to the impact, and our body echoes the original event as a flashback.
To use an analogy, we can describe it as a bee sting. There is the sting (the invasion into the body of the stinger), the venom of the sting and the reaction or defence against the sting. That reaction is the body responding to an allergy.
We all have incidents that we are unable to process. We have a natural defence mechanism to delete, distort or deflect our experiences to process them at a later time. We usually don’t analyze how or why we’ve been stung by a bee while we are being stung. Our priority is to get to safety.
We cope by storing these experiences in a jar on the shelf of a cupboard in an inner warehouse to be worked out at a different time. We usually don’t return to the painful overwhelming moment to process it. Why would we? We are coping just fine.
Igor Ladowinski tells us we have an inner doctor who wants to clear out that warehouse and we have an inner protector that wants to keep us safe. Often, these two sides do not work together.
Flashbacks return us to those moments either to heal us or to protect us.
There are three types of flashbacks, which I name as Type 1: direct flashbacks (anchored in the outside world); Type 2: indirect flashbacks (anchored in the inside state of vulnerability); and Type 3: remote flashbacks (anchored in the dynamic between the two).
Type 1: Direct Flashbacks
Direct flashbacks are associated with a place, an object or anything else related to the incident.
I tell the story of crossing the street and getting hit by a red car. Everything around the event is now connected to it. The next time I am putting on the shirt I wore at the scene, a little voice pipes up: “Hey buddy, the last time you wore that shirt you were hit by a car. Are you sure the shirt isn’t unlucky?”
I will get stung with a flashback and anxiety. I could be at that location of the accident at four a.m., with no cars on the road, and flashback. I could be at a mall, walking towards a front door, and suddenly have a flashback. I could walk in front of a red car and a flashback can come, even if this car is parked and quiet.
I tell the story of a friend of mine who gave me an elbow and said, “Listen, you know I left that bastard cheating husband of mine last February. Well, I have functioned well for months. It’s July and suddenly I am falling apart. What is goin’ on?”
I asked if the time of year could be the point of impact: “Anybody pass away or any events this month?” Her face fell in recognition.
“Yeah, it was our anniversary,” she said. “We were married on the 15th of July.”
Direct flashbacks occur when our body thinks we are in a danger. We can even have a flashback, reflected in mood and energy, without even knowing it’s happening. Sometimes it’s a color, sometimes a time of year.
Critical incident stress flashbacks are a Type 1 flashback.
Type 2: Indirect Flashbacks
Indirect flashbacks are anchored in a mood or emotional state.
I was debriefing a group one time after someone died of an aneurysm who was married to another member of the company. In the debrief, I asked, “What’s the part that is most difficult for you?
The first person said, “He was only 48. He was so looking forward to grandchildren and walking his daughter down the aisle at her wedding. That really upsets me.”
The second person said, “He died in a parking lot, for heaven’s sake. That really disturbs me.”
The third person said, “I can’t stop thinking about my divorce. I feel really badly because I want to be present for the family and situation but it is in my face.”
I replied that this is exactly what is supposed to happen.
It’s the incident that has the most impact that comes back, not necessarily the one going on at the time. That’s the way we experience it. Those things we have stored up are suddenly present. It taps us on the shoulder and says, in its toughest biker voice, “Hey, Jeff, remember ME?”
Type 3: Remote Flashbacks
Remote flashbacks are anchored in a dynamic.
Once, a friend of mine gave me an elbow and said, “I was just in a car accident and I am having flashbacks of being abused as a kid. What is with that?”
“What happened in the car accident?” I asked.
“I just came up to a red light so I leaned over to get something out of the glove compartment.BAM! Right out of the blue someone hit me from behind. It jarred my neck. Now, I never suppressed the fact that I was abused as a kid but what is it about the car accident that would bring back those flashbacks so strong?”
“What happened in the abuse?” I asked.
“Well, I was 5 years old, and my uncle was the only one to pay attention to me in my chaotic environment. Then, one night … right … out … of the blue …”He stopped speaking.
I finished the story for him:”Bam! Like someone hitting you from behind?”
In this case, a disturbing event is triggered and the venom of that event enters the emotional world. At that moment, one is transported back to the moment of impact, which is when the emotional processing stopped, and the defences are triggered as they were then.
We are in need of both healing and safety.
However, when we experience trauma, our predominant response is to feel overwhelmed. In subsequent posts, I will introduce you to the Shift Technique, which permits you to stand both inside and outside the flashback. As incident commanders, we can use the Shift Technique to help our crews heal and stay safe.
Help me make this more clear: do these descriptions match your experience or can you share how it is similar or different?