Emotional flashbacks take a horrendous toll on those who experience them. To feel like you are in danger with all the emotions that accompany it, fear, anxiety, startle, and a myriad of other feelings without understanding where they are coming from is both frightening and debilitating.
This piece will delve deeper into emotional flashbacks and methods to defeat them.
CPTSD and Emotional Flashbacks
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) afflicts many people who were traumatized in childhood through more than one type of neglect or abuse (including narcissistic abuse). One of the defining features of CPTSD is emotional flashbacks.
Indeed, trauma theorists Judith Herman and PTSD researcher Bessel van der Kolk describe complex post-traumatic stress disorder as being “caused by prolonged, repeated trauma.”
Pete Walker, an M.A. in psychoanalysis, first coined the phrase emotional flashback to explain the horrific experience of feeling emotions that seem disconnected and out of place in the adult survivor’s current situation. He recognized the connection between CPTSD and emotional flashbacks.
Walker describes an emotional flashback as an “amygdala hijacking” forcing the survivor to relive the emotions they once felt in the past during a traumatic event without the benefit of knowing or remembering the memory associated with it. These emotions may include fear, despair, rage, sorrow, grief, and other strong emotions that emerge suddenly without warning after being triggered by something in the environment. Often survivors are clueless as to what these triggers are.
The intense emotions felt during an emotional flashback are often accompanied by toxic shame.
Using Self-Compassion to Defeat Emotional Flashbacks
Survivors of traumatic childhood suffered greatly when they were small at the hands of people they should have been able to trust. Pete Walker theorizes that because people in their lives, caregivers, parents, other adults who knew about the abuse but did nothing to stop it, survivors are looking to be rescued from their pain.
In his practice, Pete Walker attempts to reframe emotional flashbacks as messages from their wounded inner child that needs validation and help to get out of pain. He states that by painting emotional flashbacks as an inner child’s shouting and begging for their need of love, protection, and respect to be met. One critical component of meeting the inner child’s needs is to learn how to practice self-compassion.
Self-compassion is having compassion for oneself by respecting and acknowledging the emotional needs one has. Because of the developmental lack caused by childhood trauma, many survivors do not know how to practice self-compassion and must learn as adults how to love, nurture, and respect themselves.
Self-compassion is the cornerstone of healing from trauma and of ending the tragic experiences of emotional flashbacks. There are three main components to self-compassion, self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.
Self-kindness involves becoming warm towards oneself when experiencing pain and recognizing areas where we have shortcomings. When we practice self-kindness, we do not ignore our shortcomings or hurt ourselves by using self-criticism.
Common humanity involves understanding and recognizing that suffering and pain are universal among all people and are not isolated to ourselves.
Mindfulness helps us take a balanced approach to our negative emotions to avoid exaggeration or suppression of them. By using non-judgmental mindfulness, negative thoughts about oneself are observed in a receptive mindset to observe our thoughts and feelings without trying to deny them. Mindfulness requires that we not overidentify with any mental or emotional thought patterns that cause adverse reactions by ending ruminations on those thoughts.
Brain Changes Through Psychotherapy and Emotional Flashbacks
In a previous post, we have already discussed some of the ways emotional flashbacks are caused by changes or damage done to children’s brains as they mature from repeated abuse and neglect. Susan Vaughan, an American author, psychiatrist, and psychoanalyst proposes in her book, The Talking Cure: The Science Behind Psychotherapy, believes that psychotherapy “literally changes the structure of the brain and in so doing alters the way feelings and ideas are interlinked in the mind.”
According to Vaughan’s theory, psychotherapy involves the client relating stories of how they feel about themselves and what happened in the past to them and the psychotherapist interpreting those narratives. Vaughn postulates the existence of a “story synthesizer” in the cerebral cortex in our brains, responding to the interpretations of the stories held in the person’s mind and actually reshaping the brain cells and possibly brain regions through neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to continue to learn throughout a person’s lifetime because the brain remains “plastic” or malleable.
By learning through interactions with a psychotherapist a new way of interpreting what happened in childhood and its relation to how we feel today, emotional flashbacks are lessened and even eventually, in some cases, stopped altogether.
Managing Emotional Flashbacks
Below you will find a list of the thirteen steps to managing emotional flashbacks as quoted from Pete Walker’s website.
Flashbacks take us into a timeless part of the psyche that feels as helpless, hopeless, and surrounded by danger as we were in childhood. The feelings and sensations you are experiencing are memories that cannot hurt you now.
I am safe now, here in the present.” Remember, you are now in the safety of the present, far from the danger of the past.
Remind yourself that you do not have to allow anyone to mistreat you; you are free to leave dangerous situations and protest unfair behavior.
The child needs to know that you love her unconditionally- that she can come to you for comfort and protection when she feels lost and scared.
Deconstruct eternity thinking in childhood, fear and abandonment felt endless — a safer future was unimaginable.
Remind yourself that you are in an adult body with allies, skills, and resources to protect you that you never had as a child.
Feeling small and little is a sure sign of a flashback.
Ease back into your body. Fear launches us into ‘heady’ worrying or numbing and spacing out.
Feel each of your major muscle groups and softly encourage them to relax. Breathe deeply, find a safe place to soothe yourself, and allow yourself to feel the fear without reacting to it.
Use thought to stop the inner critic’s endless exaggeration of danger and constant planning to control the uncontrollable. Refuse to shame, hate, or abandon yourself. Channel the anger of self-attack into saying NO to unfair self-criticism.
Use thought substitution to replace negative thinking with a memorized list of your qualities and accomplishments.
Flashbacks are opportunities to release old, unexpressed feelings of fear, hurt, and abandonment and to validate — and then soothe — the child’s experience of helplessness and hopelessness.
Healthy grieving can turn our tears into self-compassion and our anger into self-protection.
Take time alone when you need it, but don’t let shame isolate you. Feeling shame doesn’t mean you are shameful. Educate your intimates about flashbacks and ask them to help you talk and feel your way through them.
Avoid unsafe people, places, activities, and triggering mental processes.
Practice preventive maintenance with these steps when triggering situations are unavoidable.
Flashbacks are opportunities to discover, validate, and heal our wounds from past abuse and abandonment. They also point to our still unmet developmental needs and can provide motivation to get them met.
It takes time in the present to become un-adrenalized and considerable time in the future to gradually decrease the intensity, duration, and frequency of flashbacks. Real recovery is a gradually progressive process (often two steps forward, one step back), not an attained salvation fantasy.
Flashbacks happen without your consent and certainly without you wanting them to occur. So, why beat yourself up over something you have little control over.
By following the thirteen steps, one can mitigate much of the emotional pain and suffering from emotional flashbacks.
Complex post-traumatic stress disorder is closely linked with the tremendously painful occurrences of emotional flashbacks. Both are caused by survivors experiencing repeated childhood maltreatment and neglect that leaves people living in the turmoil of its aftermath.
Self-compassion is vital if one is to overcome emotional flashbacks as it allows for changes not only to the person’s outlook on themselves but along with psychotherapy creates changes in the brain itself.
Although many people have told me they have had extremely harmful psychotherapist experiences, therapy remains the primary method of overcoming emotional flashbacks and complex post-traumatic stress disorder.
The greatest advice that anyone can give someone who experiences emotional flashbacks is to not give up hope. Emotional flashbacks are horrible, but once they are treated, life will be better, but it takes dedication to the process and hard work.
Never, ever, give up.
Your hardest times often lead to the greatest moments of your life. Keep going. Tough situations build strong people in the end.” ~ Roy T. Bennett
“Never stop dreaming, never stop believing,
never give up,
never stop trying, and
never stop learning.”
~ Roy T. Bennett
Poser, S. (1997). The Talking Cure: The Science Behind Psychotherapy Susan C. Vaughan. New York: GP Putnam’s Sons, 1997. 208 pp. Modern Psychoanalysis, 22(2), 229–237.
If you are a survivor or someone who loves a survivor and cannot find a therapist who treats complex post-traumatic stress disorder, please contact the CPTSD Foundation. We have a staff of volunteers who have been compiling a list of providers who treat CPTSD. They would be happy to give you more ideas about where to look for and find a therapist to help you. Go to the contact us page and send us a note stating you need help, and our staff will respond quickly to your request.
Are you a therapist who treats CPTSD? Please, consider dropping us a line to add you to our growing list of providers. You would get aid in finding clients, and you would be helping someone find the peace they deserve. Go to the contact us page and send us a note, and our staff will respond quickly.
Shortly, CPTSD Foundation will have compiled a long list of providers who treat complex post-traumatic stress disorder. When it becomes available, we will be putting it on our website www.CPTSDFoundation.org.
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