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What are emotional flashbacks and how to deal with them

emotional flashbacks
Photo by Molnár Bálint on Unsplash

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

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