Note: if you are triggered while reading, take a break to do some gentle self-care before returning to the article, and if you find yourself in crisis, please reach out to your medical or mental health provider, or to an online crisis resource.
Flashbacks are intense, painful memories of past trauma. Those who have PTSD sometimes report symptoms of re-living traumatic events, including sensory details and the emotions that they felt at the time. When a person has experienced repeated trauma or a long period of intense and unrelieved stress, they are at risk for developing complex PTSD. Flashbacks are still common with C-PTSD, but the person experiencing them may not realize what’s happening. Such flashbacks are called “emotional” or “implicit” flashbacks.
If you feel a sudden flood of painful emotions that don’t seem to match the intensity of the situation, you may be experiencing an emotional flashback.
As is the case for many people, I had them for a few years before I knew what they were. One distinct memory I have is of my trip to Japan with a very close friend. We were both stressed out, because she had never been out of the country by herself before, and I was struggling with stress-induced hypoglycemic symptoms that made me anxious and confused. One night in the hotel, we had an argument. She sat down on the bed and buried her head in her hands. I said that I was going to draw a bath and stepped into the bathroom. I immediately experienced an intense surge of emotions. It was like being hit with a giant wave and smacked against a concrete wall. I sat in the tub, hugged my knees into my chest, and cried. My hands and arms shook. I had thoughts like, “You are a monster. You’ve ruined your friendship and your friend’s vacation. You’re pathetic and useless.” Waves of self-hatred, shame, terror, guilt, sadness, and confusion rolled over me and wouldn’t let me up for a breath. What had happened was simple: we both had had a stressful day. Our nerves were raw, and we ended up arguing. In the middle of the flashback, it felt like the world was ending. I felt these surges of emotion on and off for the rest of the two-week trip.
People who, like me, struggle with regulating these powerful emotions for a very long time, are in danger of developing complications. These include low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts from nasty internal voices that are very hard to shut off. During the worst of the flashbacks, I had to take myself to the emergency room for fear that I would try to hurt myself. Since then, I’ve been able to open up to friends about the flashbacks and learn how to manage them. Below are some things to remember if you suspect that you’re having emotional flashbacks:
During the long process of recovery, it’s okay to get frustrated with yourself. These flashbacks are a lot to deal with. You’re already strong for having gotten through the things that caused your C-PTSD. Don’t beat yourself up for not being able to function like a “normal person.” There is nothing normal about flashbacks. There is no “right” way to feel after trauma. Even if you don’t remember what happened, your emotions are real and valid. They are a plea from your body to heal some profound wounds. They are a chance to learn more about yourself.
With time, inner work, and gentle self-compassion, these flashbacks will become less frequent and less intense. It’s a good idea to try to find the thoughts or situations that trigger them. You might find it helpful to create a mantra that you can mentally repeat when you find yourself stuck in a triggering thought pattern. Even more important than the words are the images and emotions associated with the mantra you’ve chosen. Here is one that I created for when I get stuck in cycles of guilt and self-hatred:
I imagine my friends smiling when they think about me. I allow a feeling of warmth to creep into my chest.
I imagine myself on the academic exchange I went on in Ecuador. I remember how capable, confident, and free I felt.
I imagine my soul sparkling in the sun.
Chances are that you’ve been living with a painful default mode for a very long time. Decades of fear and hurt don’t go away instantly. The good news is that, with enough patient coaxing, your brain can completely restructure itself. You can be free.
There are a few things that are important to put in place if you suspect that you’re having flashbacks. First, get in touch with a licensed counselor or therapist. They can provide a safe space for you to process your memories, thoughts, and feelings surrounding the trauma, and can give you an action plan for healing and staying safe.
The second thing is to realize it when you’re having a flashback. In his article on Psychologytoday.com, Tom Bunn says,
“When we have an implicit flashback, we mistakenly believe someone, or something, in the present is causing these feelings. Though something in the present triggered the feelings, the feelings do not fit the present situation. They are far more intense and far more persistent. Those two characteristics – intensity and persistence – are the clues we need to look for.”
Knowing that there is a reason for the terrifying flood of emotions is part of liberating ourselves from the pain and fear that the “flooding” causes. It helps us to explain to our loved ones what is happening. Once empowered with this knowledge, we can get to work on healing. Richard Grannon of Spartan Life Coaching gives five pieces of advice for dealing with C-PTSD symptoms:
Make a list of the things that you are already doing to cope with your symptoms. Do you practice yoga or go for walks? Do you drink alcohol or use recreational drugs? Some coping strategies will have positive consequences, and others will have negative ones. The first step to creating positive change is to develop an awareness of what your coping behaviors are.
Choose a State You Would Like to Feel
Do you crave the feeling of calm? If you struggle with depression, do you want to feel more energized, optimistic, or joyful? Setting a firm intention on which emotions we want to experience can act as a clear guide toward our goals.
Think About What You Could Do More Often
Which healthy habits could you engage in more? What would you like to try?
Do Something to Manage Emotional Flashbacks
I recommend Pete Walker’s 13 Steps as a way to de-escalate intense emotions and return to a grounded state.
With a licensed counselor or therapist, begin the work of recognizing which emotions you are feeling. Observe the sensations they produce in your body. Try to name each emotion as it comes up. CPTSD Foundation also has a page with resources if you are ready to begin the healing process. You can find that here.
A friend of mine who has survived trauma describes recovery as a journey of “two steps forward, and one step back.” Sometimes, to work on one part of ourselves, another part has to regress for a little bit. You might find others needing to remind you over and over that you are loved and important. This is all part of your process. In time, that love will nestle into your heart and put down roots, giving you confidence, strength, and lasting peace.
Bunn, T. (August 14, 2015). Is What You Are Feeling A Flashback? Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/conquer-fear-flying/201408/is-what-you-are-feeling-flashback
Grannon, R. (January 10, 2020). 5 Things You Can Do To Deal With CPTSD Now! Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gzocPhoORvs
Walker, P. (date unavailable). Flashback Management in Treatment of Complex PTSD. Retrieved from http://pete-walker.com/flashbackManagement.htm