My parents had a blood pressure machine in their home. Randomly, my dad asked me if I wanted to check mine. I did not let anyone see it, but the reading was higher than I expected, especially considering I was in amazing physical condition. I took it with me and checked it again when I got home, which was less than five minutes away. The reading was now at a healthy level. This was my first hint something was up, I did not know at the time what emotional flashbacks were.
It was years later that I learned I was suffering from complex PTSD, and my blood pressure went up around my parents because I was having an emotional flashback.
If you’ve ever felt overwhelmed by a sudden surge of intense emotion that seemed to come out of nowhere and nothing in the present moment justifies it. Or if you had something more subtle, like I did, then you might have experienced an emotional flashback and have complex ptsd.
In this article, I will explore the signs, causes, triggers and coping strategies for emotional flashbacks. I will also share some tips on how to prevent them from happening and how to heal from complex ptsd.
What is an Emotional Flashback
An emotional flashback is a type of flashback that involves re-experiencing the emotions associated with a past trauma, it does not have a visual or auditory detail of a particular traumatic event like PTSD.
Emotional flashbacks can be triggered by anything, such as a smell, a sound, a word or a situation. They are most often a result of childhood trauma.
Who has Emotional Flashbacks?
Emotional flashbacks are common among people who have experienced complex trauma (complex PTSD), such as childhood abuse, neglect or abandonment.
Complex PTSD is a type of trauma that occurs repeatedly and chronically over a long period of time, usually in the context of an interpersonal relationship. It is a result of many traumatic events rather than one major event like PTSD.
Complex trauma can affect your sense of self, emotions and thoughts as well as relationships and your view of the world.
Signs of an Emotional Flashback
Emotional flashbacks are intense and confusing episodes of emotions that can last from a few minutes to several hours or even days. They can also range from mild to severe, depending on the severity of the trauma and your current level of stress.
Some common signs of an emotional flashback are:
Overwhelmed by emotions such as fear, anger, shame, guilt, sadness or despair.
Having an overwhelming and humiliating sense of worthlessness, known as toxic shame.
You feel disconnected from yourself or your surroundings.
Feeling like you are in danger or under threat.
You feel helpless, powerless or hopeless.
Feeling like a child or like you are back in the past.
You have difficulty thinking clearly or rationally.
Having difficulty communicating or expressing yourself.
You find it difficult regulating your emotions or calming yourself down.
Physical symptoms such as sweating, trembling, nausea, chest pain or difficulty breathing.
Sensation of disconnection from oneself or the surrounding environment.
Struggling with impaired clarity of thought or rationality.
Encountering challenges in communication or self-expression.
Causes of Emotional Flashbacks
Emotional flashbacks are caused by unresolved trauma that is stored in your body and mind. When you experience a traumatic event, your brain activates one of the 4F responses (fight, flight, freeze and fawn) to help you survive.
This response involves releasing stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that prepare your body for action.
However, if the trauma is too overwhelming or prolonged, your brain may not be able to process it properly. This is especially true when we are children, as we do not have the experience or mental capacity to understand what is going on. So the trauma goes straight into the body and becomes a belief and a life script.
Instead of integrating the experience into your memory and learning from it, your brain may store it as an unprocessed fragment that remains stuck in your nervous system. This fragment can contain the emotions, sensations and beliefs you felt during the trauma.
When something in the present triggers this fragment, it can activate the same 4F response that you had during the trauma.
This can cause you to re-experience the same emotions and sensations that you felt back then. This is what happens during an emotional flashback and leads to unhelpful behaviours like co-dependency.
Triggers of an Emotional Flashback
Emotional flashbacks can be triggered by anything that reminds you of the trauma or makes you feel unsafe. Some common triggers are:
Sensory stimuli such as smells, sounds, tastes, sights or touches.
Words or phrases that have a negative meaning for you.
Situations that resemble the trauma or evoke similar feelings.
People who look like or act like your abuser or someone who hurt you.
Events that remind you of anniversaries or dates related to the trauma.
Stressful or challenging circumstances that make you feel overwhelmed or out of control.
Someone rejecting your offer to help them, as you only felt safe as child if you felt someone needed you.
It is important to note that triggers are not always obvious or rational. Sometimes they can be subtle or unconscious. You may not even be aware of what triggered you until after the flashback is over.
As you become more educated on complex ptsd and aware of emotional flashbacks you will start to see patterns. You will recognise and deal with events that end up triggering mental processes that inflame the inner critic.
How to Cope with Emotional Flashbacks
Emotional flashbacks can be very distressing and disruptive to your life. However, there are some things you can do to cope with them and reduce their impact.
Here are some steps you can take to manage emotional flashbacks:
1) Recognize that you are having an emotional flashback.
The first step is to identify what is happening and label it as an emotional flashback.
This can help you separate yourself from the emotions and sensations you are feeling and realize they are not based on reality and are just an energy in your body.
You can say to yourself something like “This is an emotional flashback. I am not in danger, and I am not reliving the past. I am safe in the present.”
2) Ground yourself in the present moment.
The next step is to bring yourself back to reality and reconnect with your senses and surroundings.
As a child the fear of abandonment felt endless, by bringing yourself back to reality you stop eternity thinking, “This has always been like this and always will be.” And you take yourself out of your head and into your body.
Emotional flashbacks are a sign you are not in the moment. You can reconnect to the present and your body by using grounding techniques such as:
Breathing deeply and slowly
Focusing on something in your environment that is soothing.
Touching something that has a pleasant texture or temperature.
Listening to calming music or sounds
Smelling something that has a pleasant aroma
Tasting something that has a pleasant flavour
Moving your body or stretching
Repeating a positive affirmation or mantra
3) Seek support from someone you trust.
The third step is to reach out to someone who can provide you with emotional support and validation.
This can be a friend, a family member, a mental health professional or a support group. You can tell them what you are going through and ask for their help. They can listen and reassure you that you are not alone.
4) Express your emotions in a healthy way.
The fourth step is to develop emotional intelligence and to release the emotions that you are feeling in a safe and constructive way.
You can do this by using expressive techniques such as:
Writing in a journal or a letter
Drawing or painting
Singing or playing music
Dancing or doing yoga
Crying or screaming into a pillow
Punching or kicking a pillow or a punch bag
5) Challenge the negative beliefs that you have about yourself or the world.
The fifth step is to identify and challenge the negative beliefs that you have developed as a result of the trauma. These beliefs can include things like:
I am worthless or unlovable
I am helpless or powerless
I am bad or guilty
I am unsafe or in danger
The world is cruel or unfair
You can challenge these beliefs by finding evidence that contradicts them and replacing them with more realistic and positive ones. For example:
I am worthy and lovable because I have many qualities and strengths.
I am capable and powerful because I have survived and overcome many challenges.
I am good and innocent because I did nothing wrong and I am not responsible for what happened to me.
I am safe and secure because I have resources and support that can protect me.
Remember, emotional flashback management becomes easier the more you stay aware and use the coping strategies.
How to Prevent Emotional Flashbacks from Happening
Emotional flashbacks can be prevented by healing from the trauma that caused them. This involves processing the trauma, releasing the emotions, changing the beliefs and restoring the sense of self.
You can do this with the help of a professional therapist who specializes in trauma and complex post traumatic stress disorder.
Some of the Therapies a Mental Health Professional Can Help With Emotional Flashbacks are:
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT)
Somatic Experiencing (SE)
Internal Family Systems (IFS)
Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT)
These Therapies Can Help You:
Identify and resolve the traumatic memories that are stored in your brain and body
Help you identify the triggers that lead to emotional flashbacks.
Heal your wounded inner child by helping you speak reassuringly to it.
Learn how to regulate your emotions and cope with stress
Develop a positive self-image and self-esteem leading to self compassion.
Build healthy relationships and boundaries
Find meaning and purpose in your life
As you seek help, keep in mind that when you are tired and low on energy you are more susceptible to emotional flashbacks. So take care of the basic of exercise, sleep and a healthy diet.
Emotional flashbacks are not a sign of weakness. They are a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. They are your body and mind protecting you from harm.
However, they can also interfere with your well-being and happiness.
By understanding what they are and why they happen you can learn to cope with them and eventually prevent them. You can then, finally, take control of your life and heal from your past.
Although it will seem like a slow recovery process, know that recovery is not linear. It seems like not much is happening, then one day you look back and see how far you have come.
Emotional Flashbacks Summary
Emotional flashbacks are a symptom of complex post traumatic stress disorder (complex ptsd).
Complex PTSD is most often a result of childhood abuse or neglect, where parents sent out contradictory messages. This past trauma is stored in your body, and makes you prone to seeing unnecessary danger signals because you have learned to be hyper vigilant as a child.
With complex trauma, when you are an adult, certain events and situations can trigger your inner child back into the childhood state of feeling helpless, unworthy and abandoned.
Although it takes time and patience and can seem like a never ending task you can manage emotional flashbacks and heal from complex ptsd.
Not only will you reduce the emotional flashbacks but you can get to a position where you rarely experience emotional flashbacks at all, or they will be so subtle they do not interfere in your life.
When you practice preventive maintenance and use the techniques described in this article you can lead a happy life with harmonious relationships.