Have you heard of emotional flashbacks?
Most people haven’t. And neither had I, despite having struggled with them for nearly three decades of my life.
So you might never have heard of one, but you might have experienced one – and you’ve probably seen someone else have one, too!
Over my lifetime, I have presented myself, and often my emotional flashbacks, in front of many medical professionals, healthcare staff and emergency workers. Not once did anybody recognise these emotional flashbacks for what they were, making the link to childhood trauma & abuse, let alone be able to give me any tools to deal with them.
Instead the blame was placed on my ‘disordered personality’ and my behaviour was seen as a hostile sign of not wanting to communicate or help myself, when in fact the opposites were true. If viewed in a trauma-informed light, my ‘disordered behaviour’ was actually very reasonable given what I had experienced, and could be seen as communicating very clearly that something was very wrong and I needed help, now, please.
This is why I want to raise awareness of emotional flashbacks. If somebody had told me and my family about them when I was a toddler, my whole life would have been totally different. I know that there are children, young people and adults going through exactly what I went through, and all other types of childhood & complex traumas, who could also benefit from discovering this.
To this day, I have had to educate myself to find out about complex trauma and the associated emotional flashbacks. Now I have spent over 18 months researching this, I want to share my discoveries with you. They changed my life – after a lifetime of searching, but not knowing what I was searching for – and now I want to help you change yours too.
What are emotional flashbacks?
Emotional flashbacks can happen anywhere, at any time, and in the company of anyone, or no one at all, for just a moment, a few hours, or it could even last for days. Quite simply, emotional flashbacks are fragmented representations of a complex trauma that has never been validated, properly processed or healed from.
Rather than with a focus on a visual image that can ‘flash’ into the mind at any time – in the form of visual flashbacks, commonly associated with PTSD, and traumas of a single/one-off and typically of a visually horrific nature – emotional flashbacks are more of an ’emotional hijacking’ and can change our mood & emotions in a flash.
They can take many forms, and go by many names – crises, explosions, tantrums, panic attacks, crying fits, episodes, hysterias – but the cause is always the same, as is the route to recovery.
Particularly empoweringly, emotional flashbacks are viewed by many of today’s psychological trauma experts as a kind of brain injury rather than as a mental illness or personality disorder.
Having experienced a complex trauma, particularly one during childhood or that one which lasts for many years later in life, the brain becomes rewired for fear and predisposes an individual to traits like hyper-vigilance, paranoia and lack of self-esteem.
The amygdala, one of the most primal areas within our brain, is responsible for emotional processing. Because the original trauma was never properly processed, and given its particularly complex nature, the amygdala thinks it still has to be on super-high alert. This means that today’s shopping trips and family BBQ’s are processed within your brain at the same danger level as your original trauma.
Often this is highly inappropriate, but our amygdala is stuck in primal trauma protection mode. When something then triggers our trauma brain – it may take us many decades to realise all of our triggers and where they come from – the amygdala acts as if it has been hijacked, creating an intense emotion reaction for sometimes no apparent reason or present cause whatsoever.
Thanks amygdala. Hello emotional flashback.
What does an emotional flashback feel like?
There are many feelings associated with being in an emotional flashback. The commonality is that these feelings can be particularly strong, and make an individual feel like they have no control over them. That’s because the amygdala hijack is underway.
Depending on an individual’s own complex trauma experiences, some of these feelings may be more or less relevant. There are likely to be many other strong feelings or emotions that you begin to realise indicate an emotional flashback to you.
For example, traumas around parental abandonment may lead to very strong emotional flashbacks triggered by potential abandonment scenarios and which leave you feeling ‘like a scared, small child being abandoned and stuck alone forever’. Traumas which developed from childhood bullying may lead to strong emotional flashbacks about feeling ‘like a child again, humiliated, angry and agitated, and in imminent danger’.
So, here is a list of some of the more commonly referenced feelings associated with an emotional flashback. I have felt & identify with all of these, and have added some of my most prevalent emotional flashback feelings as well:
- Feeling small
- Feeling scared
- Feeling humiliated
- Feeling totally alone
- Feeling like a child again
- Feeling that nobody understands
- Feeling there is nobody who can help you
- Feeling angry and agitated
- Feeling guilty and ashamed
- Feeling like you want to curl up and hide
- Feeling powerless and out of control
- Feeling in imminent danger or threat
- Feeling like you can’t cope
- Feeling like you are stuck
- Feeling like this is forever
- Feeling like you have failed, again
- Feeling like this is your default feeling
- Feeling like you don’t want to carry on living like this
Try not to see this as a checklist or diagnostic criteria to go by. Instead, when I remember reading about emotional flashbacks for the first time, it was empowering because I realised these feelings weren’t something wrong with me – but perfectly valid, given the experiences I had been through.
And not only that, but to hear somebody else talk about the feelings they also experience during these emotional flashbacks, made me realise – for the very first time in my life – we are not alone.
And we are not crazy, or mentally ill. Our brains experienced a trauma, we fought it off, and we are survivors! Sure, we might now need a little help deactivating our brains from those stuck-trauma modes, but at least we now know, for sure, what is behind our ‘crazy behaviour’ and that it’s not inherently something wrong with us.
How did you discover emotional flashbacks?
I discovered emotional flashbacks on Pete Walker’s website about Complex PTSD. I was 27 years old and this was the first time in my life I had identified ‘those over-grown childish tantrums I still have’.
I then bought and read his book, cover-to-cover – Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. Again this was the first time in my life I had ever seen on paper something validating my deepest secret (my emotional flashbacks were deeply shameful to me and took me almost three decades to finally be able to acknowledge).
Pete’s website and book are amazing, and his content and resources – including his much-referenced ’13 Ways To Stop Emotional Flashbacks’ – for the first time gave me real resources to deal with the psychology behind what was happening to me.
I went on to read a number of other seminal psychological trauma books, and research published academic papers & journals on the subject matter, to further validate my understanding of my experience of complex trauma and emotional flashbacks.
It became obvious to me that emotional flashbacks can be the key to compassionately recovering from complex trauma that most people, especially those professionals who should know about them, have never heard of.
I was inspired to bring some of the things I have discovered and collated from all of the resources I have read and present them, using my experiences of today’s mental health system, in a way that can help a wider reach of people suffering with the lasting, life-long and often life-limiting effects of childhood & complex trauma. That’s where Eyes On Trauma comes in.
And, I am really excited to now be able to share with you the Emotional Flashback Cards I created. Discover more about them and download your free set here!