Emotional Flashbacks and Triggers
An emotional flashback is an intensely disturbing emotional experience that is overwhelming and regresses one back to the feeling states of childhood rejection or abandonment. Emotional flashbacks are just that, they are emotional, so there is often not a visual component to an emotional flashback. Emotional flashbacks can be tricky as there is no experience of “remembering” but instead it is just the “feeling” aspect so it can often feel like it is related to what is happening right now. During this experience, we experience right-brain emotional dominance and a decrease in left-brain rational thinking. We also temporarily lose access to our post-childhood knowledge and understanding. Triggers are what set an emotional flashback into motion. Triggers are external or internal stimuli that activate an emotional flashback, it is what “triggers” the experience. Examples of triggers are people, places, objects, events such as adversaries or holidays, certain phrases or facial expressions, feeling states such as sadness, fear, anger, and internal cues like being tired, sick, or hungry. Anything that reminds us of the original childhood wound will trigger that pain if the wound is unresolved and/or unprocessed.
A common sign you are in an emotional flashback is feeling “small/little/young/immature, belittled, helpless/powerless, hopeless, and/or stuck/trapped.” An emotional flashback can make you feel fragile, on edge, delicate, and easily crushable. When you are in an emotional flashback, you are reliving the worst emotional times of your childhood which can make everything in that moment feel overwhelming and confusing. Another common sign that you have been triggered into an emotional flashback is when you notice that your emotional reactions are out of proportion to what has triggered them. I often say to my clients that “emotions always make sense within the context in which they were created.” Therefore, if your emotions are not making since to the present situation, it is likely they are not coming from the present situation but you have been triggered into an emotional flashback from the past. Another cue that you are likely in an emotional flashback is an increase in the severity of your inner (or outer) critic. This can look like intense self-criticism or being judgmental of others. A common example of this is lapsing into polarized, all-or-nothing thinking such as only being able to see what is “wrong” with yourself and/or others.
The more we understand triggers and emotional flashbacks, the quicker we can identify them. Recognizing that you are in an emotional flashback is often more important than recognizing the trigger itself (the external or internal stimulus). Triggers are often subconscious which makes it hard at times to identify the exact trigger. I often hear from people “I became angry/anxious/sad for no reason.” This is not true, there is always a trigger, yet it is likely it is still out of your conscious awareness therefore resulting in having minimal understanding and insight related to it in the present. It can be helpful to increase awareness and insight of your triggers, but invoking self-acceptance and self-support needs to trump the urge to “figure it all out” as changing how you respond to your emotional distress is often what facilitates deeper healing. Flashbacks are the inner child’s plea for help, the child that you were. These experiences are asking you to now meet the unmet need of having someone be with and comfort the distress. Recognizing these emotions are from “back then” and generating love, kindness, and care to the child within can be an incredibly healing practice.
Here are a few things you can try out to help you manage an emotional flashback:
- Say to yourself “I am having a flashback” or “I am triggered right now”- awareness is key and this also helps with the neurological concept of “name it to tame it.”
- Remind yourself “I feel afraid but I am not in danger”- look for the safety in the here and now
- Own your right/need to have boundaries- you do not ever have to tolerate mistreatment or unfair behavior; you get to be your own person
- Speak reassuringly to your inner child- this part of you is experiencing an emotional flashback to past pain and needs to experience comfort and protection in this present moment
- Deconstruct eternity thinking- in childhood, fear and abandonment felt endless so remind yourself that this flashback will pass
- Remind yourself that you are in an adult body today- adults are able to make choices and take action in ways that children can not
- Ease back into your body- gently ask your body to relax, breathe deeply and slowly, slow down, find and/or imagine a safe place, feel the fear in your body without reacting to it
- Redirect your inner critic- know that this inner voice was created to try to prevent you from experiencing this pain when you were younger by keeping you in check in a situation that was outside of your control. If it feels ok to do so, thank it for trying to help you.
- Allow yourself to grieve- grieving helps resolve emotional flashbacks, which can be an opportunity to heal by releasing old, unexpressed feelings of fear, hurt, and/or abandonment in need of validation, soothing, and compassion. Healthy grieving can turn your sadness into self-compassion and your anger into self-protection/boundary setting. Note your grief, feel it come up, let it out, and feel it come back down.
- Cultivate safe relationships and seek support- having someone you feel safe with to talk to and support you as you “feel your way through” a flashback can be helpful. Therapists can be great for this.
- Identify triggers to flashbacks- knowing what triggers a flashback can help with avoiding unnecessary triggering.
- Figure out what you are flashing back to- use mindful curiosity, the intentional practice of openly paying attention to our emotions without judgement for the purpose and desire to learn more about ourselves, to learn and discover the roots of this emotional flashback as well as what unmet needs the wound is connected to. Remember to ask yourself “Am I trigger searching from a place of being on my own side or a place of fault finding or judgement?”
- Lastly, be patient with the recovery process- it takes time to gradually building in the neurology to regulate and decrease the intensity, duration, and frequency of flashbacks so don’t beat yourself up for having a flashback. Often times flashbacks are a result of repeated, ongoing stressful situations that did not receive the necessary safety and/or repair to help move through those emotions. This was not your fault as you were a child.
As you continue to practice recognizing, understanding, and caring for your emotional flashbacks, you may start to realize that much of your emotional pain of your flashbacks is appropriate but delayed reactions to your childhood wounds. As you process your feelings in a way that resolves flashbacks, it also helps to build an increased organized sense of self. This can lead to an ongoing reduction of the unresolved childhood pain that fuels your flashbacks resulting in flashbacks becoming less frequent, intense, and shorter in duration.
Information from this blog post, including the steps for managing an emotional flashback, was taken from the book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving” by Pete Walker, ch. 8 “Managing Emotional Flashbacks.”