Emotional Flashbacks in Complex PTSD
Tonight I was reminded that the emotional flashbacks of complex posttraumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) are ever present in my life. I was sitting in bed snuggled up next to my golden retriever, Miles. I could hear my daughter in the living room singing to the songs playing through her earbuds. The louder she sang, the more I felt like I was about to come out of my skin. I just wanted to scream "Shut up." The thing is though, when I stopped to think about why her singing was flipping me out, I realized it wasn't about her singing at all. I was actually dealing with one the hallmarks of C-PTSD -- an emotional flashback.
Identifying Emotional Flashbacks
Emotional flashbacks aren't as easy to spot as flashbacks that affect our senses. Seeing a cigarette triggers me, but when it does, I know the cigarette is the cause of the trigger and can remind myself my fear isn't necessary.
In an emotional flashback, we regress into the intense feelings of despair and anxiety we experienced during traumatic times as if we are a child experiencing them all over again. Often, we end up in the emotional flashback without even realizing a trigger occurred so it is difficult to recognize that the emotions we're feeling are from the past because they feel so true at the moment.
Tonight, my daughter's singing stirred up the intense shame and hurt I felt as a child whenever I dared show joy. My joy was usually instantly met with disdain, especially if I was singing out loud, so I learned to be afraid of showing happiness. My daughter's singing connected with my inner child's intense fear that punishment follows happiness, causing me to go from being relaxed next to Miles to slipping into extreme anxiety and feelings of worthlessness.
Signs you may be experiencing an emotional flashback include:
- Feeling helpless and hopeless -- Emotional flashbacks can leave you feeling small and lost in despair with no way out.
- Extreme emotional reactions that don't fit the situation -- My daughter's loud singing could have been annoying to me because I was enjoying the quiet, but my urge to scream at her and slam the door to escape her was way out of proportion to the situation.
- Feeling intense shame -- You begin to believe you shouldn't be seen in public or be around others.
- Your inner critic voice getting louder -- You give yourself a verbal bashing, become more self-critical and tend to catastrophize situations.
Take Control of Emotional Flashbacks
Emotional flashbacks are a common challenge when you live with C-PTSD. If you deal with them, you are not alone. Here are some tips to help you move through them.
- Remind yourself you are an adult with the resources and skills to cope with the situation at hand.
- Keep your boundaries in place to give yourself time to work through the flashback.
- Reassure your inner child that he/she is safe and the threats of yesterday are no longer present.
- Remind yourself the flashback will pass, just as others have.
- Seek support if you are having trouble moving out of the flashback.
I must admit that emotional flashbacks are one of my biggest challenges when it comes to healing from my childhood trauma. I still have times when I need my therapist to remind me I am safe and am experiencing feelings from a long time ago, but I'm getting better at it. When we continuously practice paying attention, we learn to identify emotional flashbacks and can reassure the child within us the threats of yesterday are gone, so as adults, we can enjoy the events of today.
Powell, T. (2018, October 18). Emotional Flashbacks in Complex PTSD, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2023, June 1 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/traumaptsdblog/2018/10/emotional-flashbacks-in-complex-ptsd
Author: Traci Powell
I kind of just started reading about emotional flashbacks and toxic parenting. Although I kind of see myself reflected in the whole articles I've read, I am afraid of believing it.
I think I might have emotional flashbacks. For starters, whenever I watch a movie and some character is being rejected, I have to skip the scene or get out of the room. It kind of feels like I am the one being rejected and that makes me feel aweful, ashamed and lonely. And there are several things that happen to me like that and they could be emotional flashbacks. But I am scared that maybe I'm just being dramatic and ungrateful. I kind of don't want to accept it. After all, having emotional flashbacks sounds as if it is serious.
I just don't really know what to believe anymore.
I keep getting intense sadness fill my body when I see a certain thing. The two dogs I walk have these little bows on their collars from the groomer - and I felt so sad, like I wanted to have a tantrum and cry and nothing will ever be okay again and then I started to worry that the dogs feel the same. Please, someone help me.
I understand how frustrating and distressing it is to be constantly stuck in an emotional flashback and I’m sorry your have such a tough time of it. Something that’s important to remember is emotional flashbacks pull adult you back to when you were a child experiencing the horrible feelings, but that you are now an adult out of that situation. If you can sit with the little girl in you who had those feelings and comfort her, the intensity of the flashback will decrease because you are helping her know she is safe now.
It wasn’t until I finally started loving the wounded little girl in me, instead of hating her, that I was able to really start managing my emotional flashbacks. I still get them, but now I have compassion for the little girl I was and allow myself to grieve with her and then help her out of the hurt.
Can you try to just sit with the little girl in you? As you help her feel safe with you, you will become more capable of helping yourself. Also, I would strongly recommend you read Pete Walker’s book, Complex PTSD from Surviving to Thriving. It helped me tremendously.
What if there are no triggers?
What if you’re ‘locked’ in an emotional flash-back ALL THE TIME.
What if you don’t have the resources or skills to manage the situation at hand.
What if you don’t have any support?
My therapist (my 5th) doesn’t seem to have the first clue how to help me.
Medications have adverse consequences and are of no help.
When you are continuing to suffer more and more despite trying to get help, and you become less and less ‘normal’ and capable of helping yourself, what is one to do?
I am just reorganizing that I have flash backs I have complex ptsd I lash out at my family it seems to be more prevalent upon awakening I feel angry I cry and lash out but now I no what is going on so I will be able to calm myself
I'm glad you are beginning to understand what is happening when you want to lash out. The more you practice calming, the more you will help your brain keep from instantly over-reacting in situations that don't warrant it. Way to go with taking positive steps towards healing!
Well said. My emotional flasback are also related to sounds eg loud door closing. Fear and tension in my chest come instantaneously. My wife and kids support me but not sibblings which tell lots.
Thank you, Eugene. I'm sorry you don't have the support of your siblings. That can be very difficult and is definitely something I can relate to. Do you practice methods to remind yourself you are in the here and now when the fear and tension hit? Over time, mindfulness really helps in decreasing the intensity.