Managing Emotional Flashbacks
In our first piece in the four part series on emotional flashbacks, we discussed the definition of emotional flashbacks and how they change survivors by interrupting their daily lives.
This article will attempt to explore what it is like to have an emotional flashback and the 13 steps to manage them proposed by Dr. Pete Walker.
A Short Recap
Before we delve deeper into our topics for this piece, we must take a moment to recap the definition of emotional flashbacks.
Flashbacks are definable and connectable to a singular traumatic event and include a reliving of the event through the five senses. In a flashback, survivors are transported back in time to relive the trauma with all its sights, smells, sounds, and feelings.
Emotional flashbacks are different. They seem disconnected from the current existence of the survivor and include the triggering of emotions instead of the five senses. Emotional flashbacks are like having a nightmare while you are awake.
Survivors experiencing emotional flashbacks are stranded in the feelings of danger, hopelessness, and helplessness that they felt in the actual traumatic events. If, for example, the survivor as a child was physically traumatized, they certainly would have felt anger, rage, and hopelessness at the same time. However, since they were only a helpless child, they could not escape or change their situation.
As an adult, this same survivor might be triggered by a situation that somehow connects with those emotions, but instead of remembering the incident as in a flashback, they experience all the agonizing emotions that went along with the traumatic experience even though they are safe today.
Emotional flashbacks are a symptom of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Emotional Flashbacks
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (CPTSD) is a complicated that has yet to appear in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).
CPTSD usually involves traumatic and long-term abuse. The following are a few examples.
· Sexual Abuse
· Emotional Abuse
· Physical Abuse
· Mental Abuse
· Domestic Abuse
· Human Trafficking
· Living as a Prisoner of War
· Living in a War Zone
· Surviving a Concentration or Internment Camp
Basically, CPTSD forms when a child feels they are in a situation where they cannot escape. To survive the emotional and physical trauma perpetrated on them by their abusers, these children learn to push emotions deep down inside to almost make them irretrievable.
The connection between complex post-traumatic stress disorder and emotional flashbacks is well-documented. The emotions that were ignored and stuffed in childhood can be triggered back to life again, presenting disconnected emotions that seemingly come from nowhere.
One good example is a child who was emotionally abused daily by his family, telling him he was ugly and would never be anything. Although this child grew up to be a prosperous businessman, he still experiences times when he feels triggered to feel he is ugly and an imposter in his accomplishments.
The Experience of Having an Emotional Flashback
Emotional flashbacks are sudden and often prolonged regressions (amygdala hijackings) to the frightening and abandoned feeling-states of childhood.
Emotional flashbacks are together with inappropriate and intense fight/flight instincts through the sympathetic nervous system. These instincts present as intense and confusing periods of shame, fear, despair, and anger that are manifested against the survivor or those around them.
Often, when the survivors’ primary emotion during an emotional flashback is fear, they feel panicky and overwhelmed. When the emotion of despair is dominant, it causes the survivor to feel numb, paralyzed, and feel that they need to hide.
Such experiences typically come with toxic shame, which, as described in John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame That Binds. Toxic shame aids in the overpowering sense that she is as stupid, worthless, or flawed.
To help us understand emotional flashbacks better, it is essential to include a section on Pete Walker, a licensed psychotherapist who has a private practice in Berkeley, California.
Pete Walker specializes in treating adults who survived traumatization in childhood, especially those who experienced repeated exposure to abuse and neglect. He is also a well-respected authority on the topic of emotional flashbacks.
Mr. Walker offers the following definition of emotional flashbacks in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.
“Emotional flashbacks are sudden and often prolonged regressions to the overwhelming feeling-states of being an abused/abandoned child. These feelings states can include overwhelming fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief, and depression. They also include unnecessary triggering of our fight/flight instincts.”
Regression is a defense mechanism that awakens when survivors face anxiety-filled events that cause them to retreat to a childhood state. In regression, full-grown adults flashback back to their emotions as children and feel abandoned, abused, and helpless or overwhelming emotions of fear, rage, shame, depression, and grief that trigger a strong fight/flight/freeze response.
According to Pete Walker, survivors experiencing emotional flashbacks are overwhelmed with emotions they cannot understand or recognize with events they may or may not remember or connect these emotions to.
Pete Walker describes 13 Steps to Managing Emotional Flashbacks.
The 13 Steps to Managing Emotional Flashbacks
As stated, Pete Walker proposes on his website that there are thirteen steps toward managing and perhaps overcoming the effects of emotional flashbacks. These steps are available both on Mr. Walker’s website and in his book, Complex PTSD from Surviving to Thriving.
The 13 steps to managing emotional flashbacks are quoted from Pete Walker’s website below:
1. Say to yourself: “I am having a flashback.”
Flashbacks take us into a timeless part of the psyche that feels as helpless, hopeless, and surrounded by danger as we were in childhood. The feelings and sensations you are experiencing are memories that cannot hurt you now.
2. Remind yourself: “I feel afraid, but I am not in danger!
I am safe now, here in the present.” Remember, you are now in the safety of the present, far from the danger of the past.
3. Own your right/need to have boundaries.
Remind yourself that you do not have to allow anyone to mistreat you; you are free to leave dangerous situations and protest unfair behavior.
4. Speak reassuringly to the Inner Child.
The child needs to know that you love her unconditionally- that she can come to you for comfort and protection when she feels lost and scared.
Deconstruct eternity thinking in childhood, fear and abandonment felt endless — a safer future was unimaginable.
5. Remember, the flashback will pass as it has many times before.
Remind yourself that you are in an adult body with allies, skills, and resources to protect you that you never had as a child.
Feeling small and little is a sure sign of a flashback.
Ease back into your body. Fear launches us into ‘heady’ worrying or numbing and spacing out.
6. Gently ask your body to Relax.
Feel each of your major muscle groups and softly encourage them to relax. Breathe deeply, find a safe place to soothe yourself, and allow yourself to feel the fear without reacting to it.
7. Resist the Inner Critic’s (more about the Inner Critic in another post) Catastrophizing.
Use thought to stop the inner critic’s endless exaggeration of danger and constant planning to control the uncontrollable. Refuse to shame, hate, or abandon yourself. Channel the anger of self-attack into saying NO to unfair self-criticism.
Use thought substitution to replace negative thinking with a memorized list of your qualities and accomplishments.
8. Allow yourself to grieve.
Flashbacks are opportunities to release old, unexpressed feelings of fear, hurt, and abandonment and to validate — and then soothe — the child’s experience of helplessness and hopelessness.
Healthy grieving can turn our tears into self-compassion and our anger into self-protection.
9. Cultivate safe relationships and seek support.
Take time alone when you need it, but don’t let shame isolate you. Feeling shame doesn’t mean you are shameful. Educate your intimates about flashbacks and ask them to help you talk and feel your way through them.
10. Learn to identify the types of triggers that lead to flashbacks.
Avoid unsafe people, places, activities, and triggering mental processes.
Practice preventive maintenance with these steps when triggering situations are unavoidable.
11. Figure out what you are flashing back to.
Flashbacks are opportunities to discover, validate, and heal our wounds from past abuse and abandonment. They also point to our still unmet developmental needs and can provide motivation to get them met.
12. Be patient with a slow recovery process.
It takes time in the present to become un-adrenalized and considerable time in the future to gradually decrease the intensity, duration, and frequency of flashbacks. Real recovery is a gradually progressive process (often two steps forward, one step back), not an attained salvation fantasy.
13. Don’t beat yourself up for having a flashback.
Flashbacks happen without your consent and certainly without you wanting them to occur. So, why beat yourself up over something you have little control over.
Emotional flashbacks are different from the other type of flashback. The survivor experiencing it experience the emotions without physically reliving the incident. Emotional flashbacks are often part of the diagnosis of complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
Dr. Pete Walker describes emotional flashbacks as sudden and often prolonged regressions into overwhelming feeling-states when a survivor experienced child abuse. The emotions that accompany emotional flashbacks are overwhelming and include fear, shame, alienation, grief, rage, and depression.
In our next piece, we shall explore how emotional flashbacks trigger the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response in their victims and what is going on in the brain during one.
“He saw it in her eyes. The anguish, the frustration. The terrible nothing that clawed inside and sought to smother her. She knew. It was there, inside. She had been broken.
Then she smiled. Oh, storms. She smiled, anyway.
It was the single most beautiful thing he’d seen in his entire life.”
~ Brandon Sanderson
Bradshaw, J. (2005). Healing the shame that binds you: Recovery classics edition. Health Communications, Inc.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2002). The assessment and treatment of complex PTSD. Treating trauma survivors with PTSD, 127, 156.
Walker, P. 13 Steps for Managing Flashbacks. Retrieved from: http://pete-walker.com/13StepsManageFlashbacks.htm
Walker, P. (2009). Emotional flashback management in the treatment of Complex PTSD. Psychotherapy.net.