What are emotional flashbacks and how to deal with them

emotional flashbacks
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Emotional flashbacks are different from the flashbacks we associate with PTSD. Rather than visual and auditory reminders of a specific event, emotional flashbacks are more of a feeling. They take you over and immerse you in the unsafety you felt in your childhood.

These emotional flashbacks stem from unmet childhood needs and complex trauma. Unlike regular PTSD flashbacks, we tend to blame ourselves for our feelings during these episodes. That’s where the shame comes in.

When we were children being abused, neglected, or ignored, we were too young to process our feelings. As children do, we blamed ourselves and did our best to cope with them by disassociating or going into freeze mode.

Now, as adults, we may find ourselves overcome with these emotional flashbacks that take us right back to the fear and helplessness we felt as children. They can be debilitating and make it difficult to enjoy life or function at the level we need to thrive.

Emotional flashbacks can be confusing because we don’t always relate them to what happened in childhood. This can increase the pain of isolation and feeling there’s something wrong with us. This in turn makes us hide how we feel and perpetuates the cycle further.

Emotional flashbacks can be confusing because we don't always relate them to what happened in childhood. Click To Tweet

Let’s say a new contact fails to text or call and you spiral into overwhelming feelings of abandonment, rejection and not-enough-ness. You may not realize how your parents neglect or abuse has triggered this response in you.

Criticism over comfort

Instead of looking at things objectively or even mourning the small loss, you would instead feel overwhelmed by shame and assume it means you’re not good enough. You might also try to win the person over by suppressing your needs. Just as you tried to win your parents over in the past.

However it looks for you, chances are you would not simply let the person go without much rumination, suffering, and feelings of inadequacy. Then you might berate yourself for not being able to let things go instead of comforting yourself in the face of disappointment.

If you never received comfort from the adults around you when you were a child, comforting yourself as an adult will not come naturally. You will criticize yourself for having what you view as a less than perfect response, the same way your caregivers might have done.

If you never received comfort from the adults around you when you were a child, comforting yourself as an adult will not come naturally. Click To Tweet
emotional flashbacks

How to deal with emotional flashbacks

1. Understand the root cause

Emotional flashbacks don’t appear as concrete memories and may not feel like flashbacks at all. Instead they flood you with feelings of shame, fear and hopelessness that have their roots in childhood abuse and neglect.

If you realize why you are experiencing these episodes, and that it’s not your fault, you may feel better. If you acknowledge the truth that they arose out of a traumatic childhood, you can seek support to process what happened to you in the past.

2. Mindfulness

When you find yourself in the midst of an emotional flashback, ground yourself. You can say, “this is a normal traumatic response I’m having and I’m safe right now”.

You can also use your senses to bring yourself into the present moment. Take note of what you see, touch, and smell in the room to remind yourself of your safety.

3. Comfort yourself

When we experience these emotional flashbacks, we tend to criticize ourselves for our feelings which only exacerbates them. Instead, offer yourself comfort and compassion for the way you feel.

Give yourself the unconditional love you missed out on as a child. Remind yourself that it’s not your fault you’re feeling the way you do. Give yourself a hug or wrap in a warm blanket, or some other self-care activity that feels good for you.

Recommended Resource: Emotional Flashback Management by Pete Walker

How to tune into the present moment to alleviate worry

present moment

You may have heard that the present moment is the only one that matters. Much of our anxiety and unhappiness comes in dwelling on either the past or the future.

While that may be true, it’s not so easy to simply stop looking forward or backward. Many of us who grew up with unmet childhood needs struggle with an onslaught of emotional flashbacks on a daily basis.

Many of us who grew up with unmet childhood needs struggle with an onslaught of emotional flashbacks. Click To Tweet

This symptom of complex PTSD takes us over and covers us in a blanket of shame. More than a memory of a past event, it’s a debilitating takeover of our minds and bodies that makes feeling good seem impossible.

But there is evidence that mindfulness practice can help with these flashbacks. Grounding ourselves in the present moment on a regular basis can rewire our brains to work for us rather than against us.

Present moment practice

I’ve begun a daily meditation practice which started with ten minutes and now lasts an hour. For me, meditation means sitting and letting my thoughts go by, rather than making my mind a blank slate.

Observing my thoughts in the moment has brought a peace I’ve never known. In the months since I’ve started the practice, my emotional flashbacks have lessened and I feel less stressed about my future.

Often, after my one hour meditation practice I will find new money in my account. Since starting mindfulness practice, I have let go of clamoring to earn money and allow that money to come in instead.

I have learned that hard work doesn’t necessarily pay off. Letting go often reaps greater rewards and more quickly.

I have also learned that worry about the future has felt like “home” to me. It was a coping mechanism I picked up as a child whose needs weren’t met.

In order to feel safe, I had to control my outcomes. Assuming the worst helped me avoid disappointment and being blindsided by calamity.

Self-sabotage as self-protection

That’s one example of self-sabotage as self-protection. Even though it feels bad, worry and anxiety over the future is our inner child’s way of keeping us safe from uncertainty.

Worry and anxiety over the future is our inner child's way of keeping us safe from uncertainty. Click To Tweet

Only recently, I’ve begun to challenge my natural inclination to expect the worst. I say to myself (out loud sometimes) “but what if it goes well?” or “what if it turns out exactly the way I want?”

Believe it or not, these words have an impact on how I feel about the future. Entertaining the possibility that things might go well instead of badly, feels good! And it’s just as likely as a negative outcome, if not more so.

present moment

Another mindfulness practice that keeps me in the present moment is breathwork. During these one-hour sessions, all my anxious thoughts dissipate and I get answers and solutions to my life’s questions and problems.

Science tells us that our minds are plastic, meaning they can change with some work. Daily meditation practice, and challenging old thought patterns can help us feel differently than we’ve always felt.

It takes some discipline to sit still for ten minutes or an hour. It also takes time that you might feel guilty giving to yourself. If you’ve been trained to believe that “doing” makes you acceptable, sitting still may not be easy.

But you are worth the time it takes to heal your brain and rewire it to work in your favor. If you can avoid distractions to focus your energy on the present moment, you will reap rewards that may surprise you.

How to release attachment to the outcome and let go

release attachment
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When you grow up with unmet childhood needs, your brain gets rewired making it more difficult to release attachment to outcomes. Because of your chaotic upbringing you may become over controlling as a way to keep yourself safe.

Since so much was uncertain and surprises could be dangerous, you became hypervigilant. That means you adopted a survival brain that tasked you with looking out for threats rather than approaching life with curiosity and/or playfulness.

That’s why life can feel like a slog for those of us overcoming the effects of complex PTSD. We never received the security from our parental figures necessary for a child to branch out and explore.

We kept checking to make sure they were there. Often, we had to resign ourselves to the fact they were never going to care for our needs and we had to take care of them ourselves.

Since a child is too young to care for its own needs, we developed coping mechanisms to get us through. These included minimizing those needs and suppressing our emotions (because no one could help us with them or they pushed people away or got us punished.)

Survival brain

Fixated on keeping us safe, this survival brain cannot tolerate uncertain outcomes. It has trouble with longer processes because it simply wants to get things over with.

I can attest to feelings of danger in the face of loose ends or unfinished projects. Until I reached the completion phase, I could never let my shoulders down.

Considering that the majority of life and work consists of unfinished business or work in progress, this was a untenable way to live.

However, I was so used to feeling this debilitating hypervigilance, that it felt like home to me. I had no idea there was another way to feel.

As a result of my sense of foreboding over unfinished projects, I’d avoided writing a book even though I’d been a writer all my life. I believed my limits would not allow me to follow through on such a large project with an uncertain end date.

Difficulty relaxing

I’ve also been known to structure and schedule vacations to within an inch of their lives. In reality, I never experienced a true vacation because that would have meant relaxing. Survival brain wouldn’t let me do that.

I discovered the concept of survival brain in Dr. Jacob Ham’s five-minute YouTube video which you can view here. There, I discovered the reason for my inability to release attachment to outcome and began to question it.

I started challenging my brain when it told me I couldn’t tolerate being in the middle of something. I breathed and talked myself through the messy middle and stepped away when it became too much.

Rather than racing to the end, I began to focus on the present moment. I haven’t yet reached the point of enjoying the process, but believe I’ll get there. For now, tolerating it is enough for me.

How to release attachment to outcomes

release attachment

1. Acknowledge it.

Often, when we’ve lived with something so long, we aren’t aware there’s another way to feel. I assumed my intolerance of processes was simply a limit I had to work within.

Once I learned the childhood roots of my so-called limit, I saw it as a coping mechanism designed to protect me. Then, I could take steps to change and release attachment to the outcome.

2. Be kind to yourself

Understand it’s not your fault, and circumstances beyond your control probably led to the survival brain that holds you back. You might even commend your inner child for keeping you safe the only way she knew how.

Now that you’re an adult you can assure the child you’re in charge now. She can rest and you’ll take over from here.

You don’t have to push through when you experience those old fears around being in process rather than at the end. You can step away and take a self care day or journal your thoughts and feelings to get them out.

3. Stay present

When your mind starts catastrophizing because of one little mistake, pay attention to your breath. Ground yourself by taking note of what you see, hear, smell, touch.

Remind yourself that you’re safe right here and now. And the present moment is the one that matters most.

4. Embrace the learning curve

As children, we weren’t encouraged to learn and explore. We thought we had to get everything right the first time and that made learning and making mistakes terrifying.

Since most people don’t share their failures, we may believe we are alone when we don’t get things right. But failures and mistakes are inevitable while working toward a goal.

Rather than beating yourself up when you encounter one of these blips, remind yourself they are normal. We learn from our mistakes and this is how we get information on how to do new things.

Consider how unrealistic it is to think we should get everything right the first time. When you stop to look at it that way, you realize the impossible position you’ve put yourself in.

Now, you can go easier on yourself as you work on something new. If you’re like me, enjoyment may not come quickly, but tolerance will. You will begin to achieve things you never thought possible and you’ll feel so much better in the process.

How to deal with family estrangement struggles

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Loneliness, heartache, isolation, and feeling misunderstood add layers of pain to family estrangement.

As one who’s traveling that road, I can attest to these feelings. The social insistence on “family first” and dating advice that calls it a red flag if someone has cut ties with family, adds to the shame.

As a result of the social stigma, those of us estranged from family have an intuitive sense that it’s not safe to share this information. That self-protection may be wise, but it leaves us feeling as though there’s something wrong with us, and we’re hiding something fundamental.

As a result of the social stigma, those of us estranged from family have an intuitive sense that it's not safe to share this information. Click To Tweet

You may carry a lingering fear that friends or lovers would abandon you if they knew the truth about your estrangement. You bear the burden of a constant fear of judgment over your family status.

It’s important to note that the decision to withdraw from family members is almost always a last resort. It comes after years or decades of trying to make a relationship function. Or to fit into a family system that won’t make room for your wants and needs.

Mixed emotions

Your logical mind might know you made the only decision you could. But another part of you will second guess or take on a woe is me attitude instead of celebrating your freedom.

This could be due to a past of never receiving comfort and support. As a result we have trouble meeting our own needs for comfort and support. It feels much more natural to be mean and harsh with ourselves.

You may feel resentful of the support other people receive from their families. You wonder how, in spite of this support, they complain about their family members.

In fact, it’s natural to have disagreements and express displeasure with your family. But you were probably never allowed to do that. Your opinions or desire for change, no matter how tactfully put, may have resulted in abandonment or gaslighting.

You learned that there was no way to disagree with your family or express honest opinions and emotions. The only way you could be yourself was to leave.

How to deal with estrangement

1. Resist the urge to isolate.

Family estrangement is more common than you think. Rather than keeping it to yourself, share with someone with whom you feel safe doing so.

If there’s no one in your life right now who understands, find a support group or counsellor skilled in dealing with estrangement, either online or in person.

2. Leave the door open.

If it helps, you can view the estrangement as impermanent. Instead of seeing the situation in black and white, tell yourself we’re estranged for now but who knows what the future holds?

Not only is this true, it can make the estrangement easier. Often, when we grow up with childhood trauma, we tend toward black and white thinking to keep ourselves safe. Allow yourself to hold onto things more loosely and have less control over them.

3. Set boundaries with family members.

You may be lucky enough to have supportive family members who understand your decision. That’s wonderful, but be sure to set boundaries around what you’re willing to listen to or talk about.

Often, however, especially when dealing with a narcissist, other family members may covertly support the person you’re seeking to avoid. This is evident in the case of so-called flying monkeys, who are part of my story, too.

4. Don’t blame yourself.

If you’ve been put in the difficult position of living with estrangement, chances are you might blame yourself. You may have grown up in a family role that blamed you when things went wrong.

If you've been put in the difficult position of living with estrangement, chances are you blame yourself. Instead of beating yourself up, treat yourself with loving kindness. Click To Tweet

Therefore, it feels like second nature to take responsibility for family breakdowns, or any rift in a relationship. You were probably always the one to try and make things better before the estrangement.

Instead of beating yourself up, treat yourself with loving kindness. When you are feeling the pain of your situation, listen to your needs and comfort yourself as you would a little child.

How to deal with emotionally immature people

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I’m reading Recovering from Emotionally Immature Parents by Lindsay C. Gibson. It’s the follow-up to Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents which helped me understand why my parents could never give me what I needed.

Emotionally immature people are sometimes hard to spot at first. They can appear successful and have all the trappings of a healthy adult life.

But when you get into relationship with them, something feels off. You come away feeling empty because your emotional needs are not being met.

When you try to increase intimacy by sharing your struggles or secrets, they shame you in overt or covert ways. These come in the form of eyerolls, silence, sighs, topic changes, or an unwillingness to reciprocate and express empathy for your problem.

Relationships grow as we become more vulnerable with one another. We each open up little by little, with one person’s sharing inviting the other to share something about themselves, too.

With emotionally immature people, you may feel like you never get out of the acquaintance phase. They stick doggedly to the surface and discuss only material matters like what you did or saw, but never the contents of their emotional life.

Or they may only accept a one-sided version of things. You are expected to listen to them and their issues while remaining silent about your own.

I’ve encountered two types of emotionally immature people: the emotionally avoidant and the emotionally charged (I’ve made up these terms).

The former shares traits with the avoidant attachment style. This means they keep themselves safe by rejecting emotional intimacy.

Unmet needs and emotionally immature people

That’s often because their emotional needs went unmet in childhood. They learned that emotions didn’t create intimacy but pushed people away (their parents, for example).

It’s a subconscious coping mechanism that couples with high self-esteem and lower esteem of others. That’s why they can seem like they have it all together and make you feel bad for expressing emotions or having problems.

The latter, whom I’ve called emotionally charged, aligns more with the anxious attachment style. That means you are constantly assaulted with their emotions and needs, and feel like you can never give enough.

This also results from unmet childhood emotional needs. The parent may have been inconsistent in meeting those needs. Or used the child to prop up their own image as an ideal parent.

Of the two, I believe emotional avoidance to be the most insidious. That’s because our world still rewards people who err on the side of reason and logic and reject emotions.

emotionally immature

As a result, this type of emotionally immature person sees themselves as superior. They aren’t likely to change because someone else points out their deficiencies.

They believe they are handling life better than you. So, they probably won’t respect you enough to take your views into consideration.

The emotionally charged person, however, is often in a tremendous amount of pain. They feel constant rejection and fear of abandonment, and have a lower sense of self-worth.

The pain of living this way is often motivation for them to seek help. They are willing to listen to others because they hold them in higher regard and value relationships so much.

But they’re so nice!

The confusing thing about emotionally immature people, especially the avoidant kind, is that they can seem so nice. Therefore, you might buy into their insistence on staying above the surface of things.

You begin to question yourself and wonder if there’s something wrong with you because you think so deeply. There’s not!

Emotional intelligence requires us to enter the world of feelings and take note of what they’re telling us. Our emotions have information to impart to us that improve our lives immensely.

And there is no intimacy without emotional connection. No relationship can grow without sharing each other’s emotional lives. It can continue to limp along, even for years, but without that necessary intimacy it will never thrive.

So, if you’re a growth-oriented person who wants to be seen and known, the emotionally immature person will only disappoint you. They may dangle the carrot with their charm and social prowess, but in the end it’s an empty meal with no substance.