The Living Hell of Emotional Flashbacks
In our last article, we discussed the differences between post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). One of these dissimilarities involves the living hell of emotional flashbacks.
In this piece, we shall examine the definition of emotional flashbacks and ways to manage them.
Should you become overwhelmed during this piece, please stop reading and do some grounding exercises. Afterward, put it aside and take this piece with you to your therapist’s office to read it together. As always, safety is primary.
What are Emotional Flashbacks?
According to Pete Walker, emotional flashbacks are a complex mixture of intense and confusing reliving of past traumas from childhood. It is like living a nightmare while you are awake, with overwhelming sorrow, toxic shame, and a sense of inadequacy.
Filled with confusing and distressing emotions from the past, an emotional flashback is extremely painful.
In my experience, an emotional flashback causes me to feel nuclear war is about to begin, or I am in extreme danger. It just feels like something horrible is about to happen.
I become hypervigilant beyond my normal and want to isolate away from family and friends. Unfortunately, doing so only magnifies the feelings of abandonment and I get stuck in a loop of feeling in endangered and trying to reason my way out of my feelings of hopeless despair.
To make matters worse, I hear my inner critic repeating messages given to me in childhood calling me a loser, a nobody, a failure, and not a good person. These old tapes leave me without energy and sometimes feeling self-destructive.
Emotional Flashbacks and the Brain
Chronic exposure to abuse in childhood often leads to the development of complex post-traumatic stress disorder leaving the victims, now adults, reliving the abuse over again later in life in the form of emotional flashbacks.
The original traumatic events harmed the brain's ability to calm down from a potential or perceived danger recognized by an overactive amygdala.
To better understand this reaction, one must first comprehend two parts of the automatic nervous system (ANS), the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
I found a wonderful description of these vital brain regions in an article written by Doctor Arielle Schwartz from 2016 titled The Neurobiology of Trauma (1), it states:
“The autonomic nervous system (ANS) plays a significant role in our emotional and physiological responses to stress and trauma.
The ANS to have two primary systems: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the fight or flight response and the release of cortisol throughout the bloodstream.
The parasympathetic nervous system puts the brakes on the sympathetic nervous system, so the body stops releasing stress chemicals and shifts toward relaxation, digestion, and regeneration.
The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems are meant to work in a rhythmic alternation that supports healthy digestion, sleep, and immune system functioning.”
Dr. Schwartz goes on to describe how the “rhythmic balance” between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems becomes disrupted by chronic child abuse, and that this lack of synching of the two leads to problems later.
During an emotional flashback, because your ANS is damaged and out of synch, the amygdala recognizes what it perceives as danger (trigger) and reacts triggering the fight/flight/freeze response. This reaction engages the sympathetic nervous system revving up your body and causing a significant amount of distress. However, unlike under normal circumstances, the parasympathetic nervous system does not engage to calm down the situation leaving a person stranded in yesterday.
The Actions of the Parasympathetic Nervous System to Perceived Danger
Once triggered in adult, a damaged automatic nervous system causes a lot of distressing symptoms including immobilization, dissociation related to emotional flashbacks.
If you have ever observed a rabbit when they are frightened, their first response is to freeze to allow the danger to pass by them. This is akin to humans experiencing the freeze response made possible, like in the rabbit, courtesy of the amygdala.
Dissociation was a way for humans to stay immobilized, like the rabbit, so that we can either avoid or become invisible to predators. This survival mechanism separates our conscious awareness from our emotions and was very helpful in the days when protohumans inhabited the treetops.
Exposed to repetitive and horrific traumatic events, children use dissociation to keep going forward in their lives afterward by allowing them to disconnect their emotions from their conscious awareness.
However, this trick becomes a severe liability once the child becomes an adult, leaving us feeling anywhere from a mild sensation of fogginess to the extreme reaction of memory loss and lost time.
The emotions that we, as children, put aside through dissociation during an episode of abuse, are what roars back later in life as emotional flashbacks.
Backing up the piece by Dr. Schwartz is a research paper written by Bourne, Mackay & Holmes in 2013 called The Neural Basis of Flashback Formation: the Impact of Viewing Trauma.2
The authors of the paper wrote in their conclusion:
“Results provide the first prospective evidence that the brain behaves differently whilst experiencing emotional events that will subsequently become involuntary memories — flashbacks. Understanding the neural basis of analog flashback memory formation may aid the development of treatment interventions for this PTSD feature.”
The Thirteen Steps of Managing Flashbacks
Pete Walker, a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, is the author of several books including The Complex PTSD Workbook and Complex PTSD from Surviving to Thriving. He is also a person who has lived experience with CPTSD and emotional flashbacks.
Included in the work, Complex PTSD from Surviving to Thriving are thirteen steps to manage flashbacks.
I normally do not copy and paste things that others have written, but I do not want to get any of these steps wrong in my interpretation of them. Please, make sure to seek out the links I have included above to get more and very important information about emotional flashbacks from the man who coined the phrase.
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.
5. Deconstruct eternity thinking in childhood, fear and abandonment felt endless — a safer future was unimaginable.
Remember the flashback will pass as it has many times before.
6. 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.
7. Ease back into your body. Fear launches us into ‘heady’ worrying or numbing and spacing out.
[a] Gently ask your body to Relax: feel each of your major muscle groups and softly encourage them to relax. (Tightened musculature sends unnecessary danger signals to the brain)
[b] Breathe deeply and slowly. (Holding the breath also signals danger).
[c] Slow down: rushing presses the psyche’s panic button.
[d] Find a safe place to unwind and soothe yourself: wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a stuffed animal, lie down in a closet or a bath, take a nap.
[e] Feel the fear in your body without reacting to it. Fear is just an energy in your body that cannot hurt you if you do not run from it or react self-destructively to it.
8. Resist the Inner Critic’s (more about the Inner Critic in another post) Drasticizing and Catastrophizing:
[a] Use thought-stopping to halt its 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.
[b] Use thought-substitution to replace negative thinking with a memorized list of your qualities and accomplishments.
9. 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.
10. 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.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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. Don’t beat yourself up for having a flashback.