Why Bonfire Night and other everyday situations can trigger Panic and Flashbacks
When bonfire night comes round, it reminds me of those people, particularly those serving in the armed forces or forces veterans, who suffer from PTSD and who find the noise and percussive effect of fireworks distressing and triggering.
Pattern Matching to make sense of things
As we go about daily life, our senses take in millions of pieces of information a second, from our five senses. This information goes into the thalamus, the junction box for sensory information in the brain, where it is then normally passed on to the appropriate processing centres in the neocortex, the sophisticated thinking part of our brain.
The human brain makes sense of the information it receives through the senses from the environment by pattern matching to instinctive templates (eg a baby will search for a nipple) or templates built through experience (eg, this thing I see before me is a chair, because it’s like others I’ve seen before.) It’s a flexible ‘this is like that’ process. Our brain is about survival, so it is constantly scanning our input from the environment, pattern matching for danger. Of course normally most of this information is recognised as benign.
Unprocessed Traumatic Memories
But if any part of that received information is perceived as dangerous, it is passed instantly from the thalamus to our alarm centre, the part of the brain known as the amygdala, which sits within the primitive emotional centre, the limbic system. The amygdala pattern matches to the threat, firing the alarm and the flight or fight reflex is instantly triggered by a blast of neurochemicals from the adrenal glands. This happens before the information is passed on to our neocortex, so before we can even think, we instinctively and emotionally react to the threat. (After all, pondering could mean death). We are not given the time to properly assess whether the threat is genuine or a false alarm…..is that really a snake in our path, or just an old stick. So at this moment the executive “thinking” part of our brain, the neo-cortex is turned off
Usually, if it was a genuine threat once the incident is over and the person is able to recognise that they survived and are now safe, the experience is filtered through into normal memory, where it can be remembered as horrific but without any strong emotional arousal. Lessons might be drawn and new templates created or old ones strengthened, so that we continue to react effectively should a similar threat be experienced again.
Unfortunately this doesn’t always happen, because when the fight or flight response triggers, not only is our higher thinking brain turned off, but our memory processing centre is also compromised and so in some cases the significant features (e.g. intense sounds, smells, images, sensations, tastes) of that experience are not processed, and can become locked as an emotionally charged, pre-verbal memory pattern ( in the form of trauma sensations, feelings and impulses) into the amygdala. This prevents us from being able to make sense of the event, or recall it with any clarity.
Losing our sense of the ‘present moment’
These emotional memories, locked within the amygdala and causing hypervigilance, are then promptly triggered by any stimuli in the environment, that gives a pattern match to the originating trauma. In these moments we are instantly hijacked by the flood of emotional memories with little or no warning, in the form of flashbacks, panic attacks and phobias and nightmares. When we experience these triggers, and are then flooded with intense terror of the original trauma, we believe that we are in mortal danger now, we interpret them as data about our present situation, we lose sight of the fact that these are in reality only memories, we are not actually in danger at all.
And so back to that firework display……Those loud bangs at the firework display, (although it could also be car backfiring, a door slamming in the wind, anything that approximates to the noises experienced in that original trauma), fire the flight or fight response, and we can find ourselves diving for cover or worse, losing all sense of time and place, and believing we are back there, re-experiencing the event all over again.