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Emotional Flashbacks

Emotional flashbacks refer to the same experience of emotions that were once felt during a traumatic event.

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What are emotional flashbacks (The Awareness Centre, 2023)?

  • Emotional flashbacks refer to the same experience of emotions that were once felt during a traumatic event

    • Emotional flashbacks are most commonly seen in those with complex posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) though, emotional flashbacks can be experienced by anyone who has experienced trauma

  • These flashbacks are felt rather than seen or heard like visual and auditory flashbacks

    • Emotional flashbacks are waves of strong emotions

  • Specific situations, circumstances, or events that remind one of their traumatic experiences can trigger an emotional flashback

    • E.g., Feeling intense fear when seeing a semi-truck after being in a car collision with a large truck

      • The same fear experienced during the collision resurfaces when seeing large trucks

    • E.g., Experiencing extreme guilt and shame when making mistakes at work

      • This intense reaction could be reliving feelings of criticism and judgement experienced from emotionally abusive caregivers during childhood

 

 

What does an emotional flashback feel like (Davis, 2019)?

  • Emotional flashbacks can be described as a complex mixture of extreme and confusing feelings of past trauma

    • Many individuals who experience emotional flashbacks report feeling like they are reliving a nightmare while they are awake

      • Different types of therapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), cognitive processing therapy (CPT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), and many more can help with symptoms of emotional flashbacks

  • Feelings of sorrow, toxic shame, distress, and a sense of inadequacy can all be experienced during an emotional flashback

  • Once an individual begins to experience an emotional flashback, it is often difficult to get back to baseline as one is emotionally reliving the trauma

  • People who have emotional flashbacks report feeling like they are being oversensitive, feel “crazy,” or that something is wrong with them

    • This often leads to self-hate thoughts such as “I am worthless” or “I am flawed”

 

What happens if emotional flashbacks are not managed (Walker, n.d.)?

  • Unfortunately, many individuals who do not address their emotional flashbacks find no recourse but their own array of self-injurious behaviors and overwhelming emotions

  • Unaddressed emotional flashbacks manifest in four different ways:

    1. Fighting – presenting overly assured in a narcissistic manner

      • Misusing power, promoting excessive self-interest

    2. Fleeing – obsessive compulsive behaviors and activities

      • Work addiction, sex or love addiction, substance abuse

        • These obsessions become a “high” for the individual known as an “upper”

    3. Freezing – presenting numb or dissociative

      • Excessive sleep, over-fantasizing, watching TV, taking sedating medications

        • These behaviors help the individual tune out from the real world known as a “downer”

    4. Fawning – codependent or self-abandoning behaviors

      • Putting up with narcissistic or abusive behaviors from others

 

 

How can emotional flashbacks be managed (Walker, n.d.)?

  • Pete Walker, M.A. is a psychoanalysis who first brought attention to the existence of emotional flashbacks and has become a guru within this topic

  • Walker developed the “13 Steps to Managing an Emotional Flashback”

  1. Say to yourself “I am having a flashback” – flashbacks take our minds back to a timeless part of our psyche leaving us feeling helpless and hopeless

    • Know that these feelings and sensations you are experiencing are past 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 in the present, far away from the danger of the past

  3. Own your right to have boundaries

    • Remind yourself that you do not have to allow anyone to mistreat you

    • You are free to leave dangerous situations and unfair behaviors

  4. Speak reassuringly to your inner child

    • Let your inner child know you love them unconditionally

    • Tell your inner child that they can come to you for comfort and protection when feeling lost and scared

  5. Deconstruct eternity thinking

    • Remember a flashback will pass, as it has many times before

  6. Remind yourself that you are in an adult body

    • You have allies, skills, and resources to protect you that you may not have had before

  7. Ease back into your body            

    • Fear sends us into a worrying and numbing state of mind. To get your mind and body out of this:

      • Gently ask your body to relax – feel each major muscle group and encourage them to relax

        • Tightened musculature sends unnecessary danger signals to the brain

      • Breathe – deep and slow

      • Slow down – rushing presses our psyche’s “panic button”

      • Find a safe place – unwind and soothe yourself

        • Wrap yourself in a blanket, take a bath, hold a stuffed animal

      • Feel the fear in your body without reacting to it

        • Fear is just an energy in your body, it cannot hurt you if you do not run from it

  8. Resist the Inner Critic’s catastrophizing

    • The inner critic is our critical inner voice

    • Use thought stopping – refuse to shame, hate, or abandon yourself

      • Channel the anger of self-attack into saying NO to unfair self-criticism

    • Use thought substitution – replace negative thinking with a list of your positive qualities and accomplishments

  9. Allow yourself to grieve

    • View flashbacks as an opportunity to release lingering feelings of hurt, abandonment, etc., and instead validate your past experience of helplessness and hopelessness

      • Healthy grieving turns tears into self-compassion and anger into self-protection

  10. Cultivate safe relationships and seek support

    • Take time alone when needed but do not let feelings of shame isolate you

    • Feeling shame does not mean you are shameful

    • Educate loved ones around you about flashbacks and ask to help them talk your way through them

  11. Learn to identify triggers that lead to flashbacks

    • Avoid unsafe people, places, activities, and triggering mental processes

    • Practice preventive maintenance when triggering situations are unavoidable

  12. Figure out what you are flashing back to

    • Flashbacks are opportunities to discover and validate our wounds from the past

    • They also help us navigate our unmet developmental needs and can provide motivation to get these needs met

  13. Be patient with a slow recovery process

    • It takes time to become un-adrenalized and takes a considerable amount of time to gradually decrease the intensity, duration, and frequency of flashbacks

 

*Real recovery is a progressive process – often two steps forward and one step back. Do not give up.

 

Neurobiology of the brain and flashbacks (Forbes, 2017)

  • When a traumatic event occurs, the way the brain remembers an event is altered

    • Memory disturbances can result in vivid and involuntary memories that enter the conscious psyche causing the individual to re-experience the traumatic event

  • Flashbacks affect two major parts of the brain, the amygdala and the hippocampus, both located in the medial temporal lobe of the brain

    • Nontraumatic memories are processed and integrated via moving from the limbic system thalamus and amygdala to the frontal lobe (right hemisphere to the left hemisphere)

      • When trauma occurs, this process is disrupted, and integration does not take place – this causes the memory to be “frozen” and not logically understood

    • The amygdala

      • This part of the brain is located right in front of the hippocampus

      • The amygdala plays an important role in in processing emotional information in addition to forming basic responses to things such as fear from a moving snake

      • Traumatic events can cause the amygdala to be hyperactive

        • This results in fear responses to things and situations that pose no threat

    • The hippocampus

      • This part of the brain is located behind the amygdala

      • The hippocampus plays a vital role in forming associations so different portions of a memory can be later retrieved

      • Traumatic events can cause the hippocampus to become underactive

        • This results in improper coding of memories

    • With an overactive amygdala and underactive hippocampus, strong memories of the negative content of an event can be retrieved but the associations of the event are miscoded. This triggers the brain to activate the same response in different situations and the brain is unable to recognize that the same event is not actually happening

      • E.g., an emotional flashback

 

 

Patient Story: My Story of Survival: Battling PTSD

It is a continuous challenge living with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and I've suffered from it for most of my life. I can look back now and gently laugh at all the people who thought I had the perfect life. I was young, beautiful, and talented, but unbeknownst to them, I was terrorized by an undiagnosed debilitating mental illness.

Having been properly diagnosed with PTSD at age 35, I know that there is not one aspect of my life that has gone untouched by this mental illness. My PTSD was triggered by several traumas, including a childhood laced with physical, mental, and sexual abuse, as well as an attack at knifepoint that left me thinking I would die. I would never be the same after that attack. For me there was no safe place in the world, not even my home. I went to the police and filed a report. Rape counselors came to see me while I was in the hospital, but I declined their help, convinced that I didn't need it. This would be the most damaging decision of my life.

For months after the attack, I couldn't close my eyes without envisioning the face of my attacker. I suffered horrific flashbacks and nightmares. For four years after the attack I was unable to sleep alone in my house. I obsessively checked windows, doors, and locks. By age 17, I'd suffered my first panic attack. Soon I became unable to leave my apartment for weeks at a time, ending my modeling career abruptly. This just became a way of life. Years passed when I had few or no symptoms at all, and I led what I thought was a fairly normal life, just thinking I had a "panic problem."

Then another traumatic event re-triggered the PTSD. It was as if the past had evaporated, and I was back in the place of my attack, only now I had uncontrollable thoughts of someone entering my house and harming my daughter. I saw violent images every time I closed my eyes. I lost all ability to concentrate or even complete simple tasks. Normally social, I stopped trying to make friends or get involved in my community. I often felt disoriented, forgetting where, or who, I was. I would panic on the freeway and become unable to drive, again ending a career. I felt as if I had completely lost my mind. For a time, I managed to keep it together on the outside, but then I became unable to leave my house again.

Around this time, I was diagnosed with PTSD. I cannot express to you the enormous relief I felt when I discovered my condition was real and treatable. I felt safe for the first time in 32 years. Taking medication and undergoing behavioral therapy marked the turning point in my regaining control of my life I’m rebuilding a satisfying career as an artist, and I am enjoying my life. The world is new to me and not limited by the restrictive vision of anxiety. It amazes me to think back to what my life was like only a year ago, and just how far I've come.

For me there is no cure, no final healing. But there are things I can do to ensure that I never have to suffer as I did before being diagnosed with PTSD. I'm no longer at the mercy of my disorder and I would not be here today had I not had the proper diagnosis and treatment. The most important thing to know is that it's never too late to seek help.

Retrieved from: https://adaa.org/living-with-anxiety/personal-stories/my-story-survival-battling-ptsd

 

Crisis Resources:

  • NAMI HelpLine

  • NAMI Crisis Text Line

    • Text NAMI to 741-741

  • COPE (Hennepin County)

    • Adult: 612-596-1223

    • Child: 612-348-2233

  • Ramsey County

    • Adult: 651-266-7900

    • Child: 651-266-7878

  • Text Connect (Crisis counseling via text)

    • Text “HOME” to 741741

 

 

 

References

 

Davis, S. (2019). The living hell of emotional flashbacks. CPTSD Foundation.

https://cptsdfoundation.org/2019/07/01/the-living-hell-of-emotional-flashbacks/

 

Davis, S. (2020). Flashbacks, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and the brain. CPTSD Foundation.

https://cptsdfoundation.org/2020/04/20/flashbacks-complex-post-traumatic-stress-disorder-and-the-brain/

 

Forbes. (2017). What happens in the brain when you have a memory flashback.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/05/04/what-happens-in-the-brain-when-you-have-a-memory-flashback/?sh=4cbe63775eaf

 

The Awareness Centre. (2023). Emotional flashbacks: What they feel like and how to cope with them.

https://theawarenesscentre.com/emotional-flashbacks/

 

Walker, P. (n.d.). Managing emotional flashbacks. https://www.pete-

walker.com/13StepsManageFlashbacks.htm

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