A person sits in the dark crying as she deals with a somatic flashback from a past traumatic memory.

Somatic Flashbacks: What You Need To Know

September 6, 2023

7 min.

Somatic flashbacks are vivid experiences in which you relive a traumatic event from the past in a physical way. Learn more about somatic flashbacks here.

By: Ethan Cohen BSN, RN

Clinically Reviewed By: Dr. Don Gasparini

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Table of Contents

One of the most distressing aspects of living with a trauma-related disorder is experiencing a flashback— a vivid experience in which you relive an aspect of a past traumatic event as if it is happening in the present. Some flashbacks involve reexperiencing the physical sensations or bodily responses associated with the original trauma. These bodily experiences, aptly known as somatic flashbacks, are more than a memory: they center on the physical sensations of past traumas. Learn more about the causes and symptoms of somatic flashbacks, plus available treatment options, here.

What are somatic flashbacks?

Flashbacks can take various forms. For some people, they manifest as vivid visual images, almost like watching the traumatic event unfold in the theater of their mind. Others might encounter flashbacks through sounds, smells, or somatic sensations deeply linked to the trauma. As mentioned, a somatic flashback is a present reexperiencing of the physical sensations felt during past trauma. How a person physically experiences a somatic flashback depends greatly on the nature of their initial trauma.

To better understand somatic flashbacks, it is helpful to understand how trauma can be stored in the body as somatic memory. Somatic memory, also known as body memory, refers to the physical sensations of discomfort, unease, and pain that remain in the body after trauma. If not properly addressed, somatic memories can manifest over time through digestive issues, poor posture, chronic pain, fatigue, insomnia, and other physical sensations. 

Somatic memories caused by trauma often exist below the level of consciousness but can be brought to the surface by various triggers, such as certain types of sights, touch, sounds, emotions, and situations. Somatic flashbacks can be understood as the vivid reawakening of your somatic memories. 

Somatic flashbacks, though, are just that: momentary flashbacks. If someone experiences ongoing negative physical (or emotional) sensations long after a traumatic experience, they are likely not experiencing somatic flashbacks but rather dealing with an underlying trauma-related disorder. Unfortunately, for people with trauma-related disorders, the mental and physical manifestations of their traumatic experiences can continue long after the perceived threat is no longer present. 

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Symptoms of somatic flashbacks 

When a person experiences a somatic flashback, their somatic memories manifest more vividly. Take for example a person who experienced a traumatic accident in which they injured their back. Despite fully healing from the injury over a period of time, during moments of increased stress in the present, they may experience sensations of pain and discomfort that mimic the sensations they experienced during or right after their accident. 

Granted, somatic flashbacks may not always be as localized and obvious as the example provided above. A somatic flashback is caused by the continuation of the physical aspects of the initial trauma response long after the event has occurred. In this way, there may be several other more nuanced physical manifestations of stress or trauma that occur during the somatic flashback. For example, increased heart rate, increased respiratory rate, sweating, fatigue, and generalized muscle aches may occur. 

What causes somatic flashbacks?

When we experience stress or trauma, our mind and body gear up to protect us from the perceived threat by engaging our natural survival mechanism. This mechanism, known as the trauma response, can include a range of reactions such as fight, flight, freeze, fawn, and flop. 

Ideally, the trauma response is time-limited and self-regulating. In other words, our mind and body kick into high gear to face the challenging experience, and then we return to our baseline to properly process the events of the past. However, returning to the baseline can be more challenging for some people. Proponents of somatic therapy believe that the continuation of symptoms related to stress and trauma indicates the body’s inability to move through the course of its survival instinct fully. By this logic, somatic flashbacks may be caused by unresolved, underlying trauma.

The mind processes and stores information differently during trauma than under normal circumstances. Namely, during a traumatic event, the mind and body are focused on survival, not as much on processing and storing information. Once the traumatic event has passed, the mind and body attempt to process and store the event as a memory based on available information. Yet, depending on the severity of the traumatic event and the person’s ability to engage in a healthy way with their past experience, the event’s storing, processing, and recollection can be disordered, leading to somatic flashbacks and other mental health challenges.

During a somatic flashback, the brain and body have difficulty differentiating between the past and present. When a person who struggles with a trauma-related disorder or endured previous trauma is triggered, their body can be sent into a state of overdrive where the brain and body confuse the perceived present threat with the threat of past trauma—unnecessarily activating a trauma response. 

The trauma response is the body’s way of protecting itself from a perceived threat. That being said, for people with trauma-related disorders, there is a dysregulation in the body’s natural response to stress, and they can experience disproportionate or inappropriate bodily reactions. Remember, somatic flashbacks differ from memories. More often than not, these flashbacks are not recalled consciously but occur in a way that is intrusive and outside of the individual’s control. Through various therapeutic modalities, it is possible to address this dysregulation and help the individual better manage the emotional and physical effects of stress. 

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Somatic flashbacks and co-occurring mental health conditions

As mentioned previously, people who continue to experience negative emotional and physical sensations related to past trauma, even after a significant time has passed, may be experiencing an underlying trauma-related disorder. 

Flashbacks are a common feature of both post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). Depending on the situation and the person, flashbacks can occur with varying levels of frequency and intensity. During a flashback, some people completely relive their traumatic experience, while others more momentarily or partially relive just one aspect of the original experience. 

In addition to flashbacks, here are three other symptoms commonly associated with PTSD and C-PTSD:

  • Avoiding people, places, or thoughts that remind you of the trauma
  • Changes in your mood and thinking, including feeling distant from other people and having overwhelming negative emotions
  • Feeling on edge and becoming irritable, easily frightened, or having difficulty concentrating or sleeping

Understanding somatic flashbacks and memory can help us better conceptualize the inextricable connection between the emotional and physical aspects of trauma, and can aid us in better understanding the experience of individuals living with trauma-related disorders. 

A woman in a white shirt sits on a therapist's couch discussing somatic flashbacks she's been experiencing recently due to past trauma.

Treatment for somatic flashbacks 

Addressing past trauma and the long-term challenges it may pose (including somatic flashbacks) can be tackled through a range of different approaches. The best thing that can be done to address these challenges is to consult a mental health professional, like those at Charlie Health, who specializes in trauma-informed care

By collaborating with a mental health professional, you will be able to explore the different avenues of treatment that are available and create a plan of care that is most suited to your needs. Below is a list of several treatment modalities that can be effective in addressing the challenges, such as somatic flashbacks, that occur in individuals who have experienced trauma. 

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) 

The most widely used therapeutic modality for the treatment of trauma-related disorders, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), helps people identify and change negative thought patterns and behaviors associated with their traumatic experiences. By addressing distorted thinking and maladaptive behaviors, CBT aims to reduce symptoms like anxiety and somatic flashbacks while promoting healthier coping strategies and emotional regulation.

Exposure therapy 

This treatment modality gradually introduces individuals to trauma-related stimuli or memories in a safe and controlled environment. Through repeated exposure, it aims to reduce the intensity of emotional and physical reactions, including somatic flashbacks, ultimately helping individuals to confront and process their traumatic experiences.

Somatic therapy 

While traditional talk therapy tends to engage the mind and not the body, somatic therapy sees the body as the starting point of treating the mind. In this way, somatic therapy offers a unique avenue of mental health treatment that people can use in tandem with traditional talk therapy. Somatic therapy may also benefit people who feel that they’ve reached the limit of the benefit of talk therapy.  

Treatment for somatic flashbacks at Charlie Health

The challenges that arise from living with a trauma-related disorder, such as somatic flashbacks, are not something that you need to address on your own. Charlie Health is here to help. Our virtual intensive outpatient program (IOP) provides high-quality mental health treatment for people who want more than once weekly support for dealing with complex mental health challenges, including trauma. Our compassionate team of clinicians can help provide the tools and personalized care to address your past trauma and improve your quality of life. Fill out this short form to start your journey toward better mental health today.

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