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Emotional flashbacks are a common and distressing symptom of C-PTSD.
Although many people with complex PTSD experience emotional flashbacks, they often fail to recognise when they are happening. It is hard to realise when you are in the middle of an emotional flashback because they can be overwhelming and terrifying, and often involve regression to a childlike state- just because the adult ‘you’ knows what they are does not mean the child ‘you’ knows. The good news is that even though it is not easy, it is possible to both understand that you are having one, and find your way out of it.
In this article, I will explain what emotional flashbacks are, what they feel like from the inside, and how we can both recognise and manage them effectively.
So what exactly are emotional flashbacks?
Most people associate PTSD with visual and auditory flashbacks– the common idea of an ex-soldier ducking for cover when he hears a car backfiring because he has a flashback to bombs exploding, the survivor of rape having visions of the attack whenever someone touches them. This is called re-experiencing. Some survivors who have developed PTSD also experience emotional flashbacks, which are less commonly understood. Simply put, an emotional flashback is a when we are triggered by something that reminds us of an abusive experience and instantly re-experience the emotional state we were in during the abuse.
So, instead of seeing or hearing what happened to us, we feel it as an intense wave of emotion (sadness, anger, shame etc.).
We can easily misattribute these emotions- linking them to what is happening in the present (the trigger) instead of past experiences. Triggered, for example, by an argument, we might become overwhelmed with despair that is disproportionate to the argument and wrongly believe the argument to be the cause of our despair.
Why do emotional flashbacks happen?
These flashbacks occur because when we were traumatised, particularly as children, we did not possess the mental or emotional capacity to process what was happening in a healthy way– so we developed strategies to block those emotions and avoid feeling them. One very common strategy is dissociation– this is where the mind separates itself from the body.
Many survivors report floating above their bodies during the abuse, looking down on it, not feeling what is happening. This serves a purpose when we are children because we lack the skills and experience needed to properly process such overwhelming emotions. However, the emotions do not just “leave the body” naturally. Indeed, they can become stuck in the body. Muscles can become full of “knots” or trigger points- particularly the illiopsoas, back, neck and shoulder muscles.
How dissociation contributes to emotional flashbacks
When we learn to dissociate as children, although this is helpful at the time, we do not learn healthy coping skills as a neurotypical child would. We instead tend to dissociate every time negative emotions are felt instead of learning to self soothe and calm our nervous systems. Over time, the amount of repressed emotion stored in our bodies becomes intolerable, and starts to release in the form of emotional flashbacks, which, unlike visual/auditory flashbacks can last hours, days or even weeks. Although this is disheartening, it is important to realise that having them is a sign your body, mind and soul want to heal.
We can look at these flashbacks as messages from our soul, asking us to feel those emotions we repressed and acknowledge them so we can finally lay them to rest and move forward in a healthier way.
“Overreacting” to everyday occurences.
With all these negative emotions stored in our bodies, it is not surprising we can become engulfed by them when triggered, This is why an emotional flashback can seem so disproportionate to the situation that is actually happening. When we have them we are literally no longer in our “adult” frame of mind. We become that scared child again and feel what we would have felt at the time of the abuse, if our minds hadn’t protected us.
We might start to hyperventilate, which can quickly lead to a panic attack, as the brain interprets fast, shallow breaths as an emergency situation. Our muscles, already tight and full of knots, become tighter and prepare for attack (this is known as “body armouring”)- a further signal to the brain that danger is imminent. Our nervous system releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, increasing the feeling of panic which in turn increases the hyperventilation and body armouring- it is a vicious circle.
The situations that trigger such a response can be minor– even a certain word or facial expression can remind us of abuse, and as we are often not consciously aware of our triggers because we don’t remember what happened to us, we do not realise we are triggered. This can lead to feeling ashamed and broken, as we dissolve into tears over seemingly nothing. Being triggered in public, or at work, can be incredibly embarrassing as other people often do not know the reason we are reacting in such an extreme way.
This can increase our avoidance as we prefer to avoid situations that have triggered us in the past, to try to stop it happening again.
What does it feel like to have an emotional flashback?
It is all well and good to talk about them in a logical manner, but these flashbacks are not experienced logically- in fact, survivors of abuse have been shown in psychological research to have brains that developed differently to those who weren’t abused. Instead of developing in a normal way, survivors’ brains have been “hardwired” for a stressful, dangerous world, and even when the abuse is no longer happening, that physical and cognitive brain structure remains, looking for signs of danger in every situation.
Clearly, childhood sexual abuse significantly changes its victim’s brain and alters its function, cognition, and emotion.Lucas m. ponopka, The impact of child abuse: neuroscience perspective (linked above).
One of the areas that is majorly affected is the corpus callosum. This acts as a sort of bridge between the left and right hemispheres of the brain, allowing information to pass easily between the two. The left hemisphere is concerned primarily with logic and reason, the right with emotions. In abuse survivors this bridge is much weaker, meaning it is easy to become “stuck” in negative emotions and unable to use reason and logic to work through them. This is a contributing factor in why it is hard to understand when we are having an emotional flashback, as we are too busy “feeling” to do much “thinking”.
An inside perspective
A word, a look. That’s all it takes and I am spinning away from reality. A word, a look can open me up smooth as silk, like a scalpel. Fresh blood pouring from old wounds. A word, a look and I am helpless, hopeless.
That’s all it takes, a word, a look and I’m running as fast as I can but my feet won’t move. I’m screaming but my mouth won’t open. Emotion takes me like a tsunami, washing away my consciousness and I am a frightened child again, a frightened child in the body of a woman crying, and people are staring and I am doused in shame. Disgusting. Useless. I drown in despair.
A word, a look and I am so small again. Brain is offline. Pitying glances. I want to disappear. Even if I could find the words I wouldn’t be able to tell them what is wrong. I want to save them from my story. From the images that will not leave my mind. So the glances sting and I am covering my face and I am curling up inside.
Panic rises in me, my stomach churning, sweat covering my body. I am shaking. The world is ending. Dread chills my blood and I am drowning, drowning in despair. There are no words, they will not form. I am smaller still.
I am a child again, a child who couldn’t speak her truth. I am a child who was bursting with dark secrets, who knew too much and could never tell it. I couldn’t fight, I couldn’t run so I learned to freeze, learned to leave my body and float high above, and decades later a word, a look is still all it takes to send me flying.
I wrote that to try and put the experience into words, although it is almost impossible to do so. When I am triggered, my nervous system is overloaded and the fight/flight response happens. There are actually 4 Fs, fight/flight/freeze/fawn, and like most survivors I tend to freeze, meaning that although I want to run I am frozen like a deer in headlights.
I am full of adrenaline, shaking and sweating, great waves of emotion washing over me. In my case it is usually despair, but some people experience anger. I cannot stop the tears, I feel full of absolute dread, horror and sadness. I have to tell myself to breathe. If there are people around me I become ashamed because I am unable to control the tears and they are usually quite taken aback. I am too ashamed to look at them and unable to vocalise what is happening to me.
After some time the nervous system calms down, but I am left with the feelings of despair which can persist for days. In the past I would dissociate to deal with these feelings- hiding in my room, trying to watch TV or read but not able to concentrate on anything, feeling “spaced out” and not “in my body” at all. It is a dream like state where I feel like I am not part of the world at all and just want to be alone. Since I began consciously healing, I know this is an unhealthy coping habit and increasingly use mindfulness and journaling as a way to process the sadness and let go of it.
Sitting with the sadness.
Instead of “numbing out” and avoiding the painful emotions in a dissociative manner, I now sit with them. Sometimes it takes all of my effort to stay in my body, but this is something that improves with practice. I now know that the feelings of despair, hopelessness and dread are the feelings I would have experienced as a child being abused, the feelings I was not able to cope with at the time, and my adult self is able to acknowledge and be with them until they pass naturally. Every time I am able to do this, more healing takes place, at deeper levels, and I feel stronger and lighter.
5 ways to cope with emotional flashbacks.
1. Educate yourself.
The more you understand about the mechanism behind your symptoms and the reason they happen, the more likely it is that you will be able to recognise a flashback for what it is and not blame your present circumstances. Although information about complex PTSD was quite limited in the past, there are more and more fantastic books and internet resources now that you can use to inform yourself.
I personally recommend Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving (also available as an audiobook) and another book of his called The Tao of Fully Feeling. Pete Walker’s website has many useful articles on all subjects relating to childhood abuse and CPTSD. You can download a PDF of his excellent 13 Steps for Managing Flashbacks here. Another book on this topic I can highly recommend is The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk, a psychiatrist and researcher into trauma based therapies. His website is also full of resources for survivors and can be found here. I will warn you that these books can be very triggering to read at times, so it is best to tackle them in short bursts, allowing breaks to absorb and assimilate what you have just read.
If you would like to read about some methods I have found useful in healing trauma, I have written an article called Healing Trauma- 10 Ways to Soothe your Soul which is split into two parts and can be found here and here.
2. Be present.
As I mentioned before, it is very important to practise the art of mindfulness when feeling overwhelmed by flashbacks. At its core, mindfulness is remaining present, staying “in the body” and observing what is happening rather than allowing our brain to shut down. When we sit with our emotions and observe them rather than try to push them away, we are connecting with ourselves and particularly with our hurt, abandoned inner child. We are acknowledging the wrongs that were done to us and giving validation to that child inside, who feels blamed, shamed and alone.
When we sit with uncomfortable feelings until they pass, we realise that they do indeed pass. We realise that as adults, we can soothe ourselves. And each time we get through a wave of intense emotion without fighting it, we get that little bit closer to the shore- that little bit further in our healing journey.
When we are able to realise that we are having a flashback, and correctly attribute those intense emotions to the real cause rather than the trigger, we stop blaming people and situations in the present. Instead of pushing people away because we assume they are the ones making us feel bad, we can be open with them. As a result, our close relationships become healthier, and people can be a source of support for us rather than “the enemy”.
Ground yourself in your senses.
If you start to feel dissociated or spaced out, mindfulness can help. To stay in your body, use your senses. Ask yourself “what can I see now?” and look around you- name something you can see. Describe it if you like. Then ask yourself “what can I hear?” and do the same. Then “what can I smell/taste/touch?”– working your way through the senses one by one. Try to name one thing for each sense. This can help to ground you in reality. Tell yourself you are safe, and it is okay to feel whatever you are feeling in that moment. Talk to yourself like you are talking to your best friend– imagine them in that situation, what would you say?
There is so much more to say on the topics of mindfulness and grounding that I will expand on them in further articles, so I can do a “deep dive” into the subject as it is an important part of recovery.
Here is a lovely short animation about the power of mindfulness.
3. Practise relaxation.
When your body is tensed up and tight, it sends signals to the brain that there is danger present, even when there is not.
Breathing shallowly and quickly also sends this message. It is a good idea to take a couple of minutes every so often to focus your attention into your body and ask yourself where you feel tense. Are you holding your jaw tightly? Your neck and shoulders? Are you “braced for impact“?
Breathe deeply and slowly into those tense areas, allowing them to relax. There are lots of guided meditations online to assist you with this. Even if you only have a couple of minutes, just breathing consciously into those tense areas can make a world of difference.
If you practise doing this throughout the day it will be easier to do it when you are in a stressful situation. As soon as you feel tension rising, consciously relax- you may completely stop the flashback happening or at least reduce its effects.
If you find it difficult to sleep, you will benefit greatly from conscious relaxation and can use the time after you get in bed to relax all of your muscles which should ease you into sleep. You could also try a weighted blanket, which simulates the relaxing feeling of being wrapped up in someone’s arms.
4. Creating your way out of flashbacks.
One of the best ways to release all this stuck trauma when you are struggling with flashbacks is to pour it into art- whether that be painting, writing, making music, dancing- anything where you can create from your pain. Don’t worry about the quality of the art or even think about it, just create something. It is so therapeutic to just go wild and let that inner child play again. There is no need to be critical of your work, or even keep it. Burn it afterwards if you must, bury it, rip it up and scatter it to the four winds. The therapy is in the creation.
The process will give you something to focus on outside of yourself, and also help ground you in reality- particularly if you get your hands dirty. Get some finger paints and just go crazy, feel the sensation of the paint on your hands, see the colours blend and change before your eyes. Revel in the moment.
Journaling your way through flashbacks.
I also recommend you use a journal to jot down all those thoughts that run round and round in your head. This is for your eyes only (and anyone you choose to share it with) so don’t be afraid to express yourself fully. Vent your anger with pages of cursing, detail explicitly the worst things that happened to you. If you feel suicidal, talk about it to your journal. Describe the flashback feelings. Talk about your unhealthy behaviours, your urges, your darkest thoughts. This is how we meet our shadow, the side of us we push away and deny.
It is only by getting to know our shadow and accepting it as part of us we can truly become whole.
When we release through creativity and journaling, it helps to get some of that darkness out of our system. You can pour a lot of pain into your art, and much of that pain will stay there. It is cathartic to see your suffering take another form, to acknowledge it in that way- you are saying to your inner child that the what happened was real, that their feelings about it are valid and understandable.
Journaling is a good way to measure your progress, too. I have looked back over old journals of mine and been amazed at how far I’ve come, how much I have let go of.
Don’t just express your pain through art- use it to express your joy, too. All those emotions you feel so much more deeply than others can make for the most beautiful, moving art.
5. Practise affirmations.
Daily affirmations are a wonderful way to connect with yourself lovingly. When you are in the midst of an emotional flashback, it can be so helpful to return to your affirmations as a reminder of who you are now. You may feel like that child again, but you are an adult now, you are safe and you can protect yourself.
To practise affirmations, look in the mirror or just imagine yourself as if talking to someone else. It can help to have a list of affirmations to read from until you know them off by heart, or you can just say how you feel that day.
Here are some example affirmations to get you started:
I am safe now.
I am loved. I deserve to feel loved.
I am worthy.
I love and forgive myself.
I am healing every day.
..and so on. Here is a lovely list of affirmations to give you some more inspiration.
You may feel silly at first, but there is scientific research backing up the power of affirmations and their ability to rewire the brain. Years of negative thoughts about ourselves lead to a negative self-image, and daily affirmations can be an effective tool to reverse that pattern of thinking.
When struggling with emotional flashbacks, you can return to your affirmations to give you a boost and remind yourself and your body that you are truly safe now.
There are many other ways to deal with emotional flashbacks, but I will save them for another article to avoid this one turning into a book!