Emotional Flashbacks

Quite by chance, I took an incredible book with me during my holidays : Complex PTDS, from surviving to thriving, from Pete Walker. I bought it because of its amazon reviews. I remember one stating : “if you buy only one recovery book, buy this one”. This is quite a statement.

You will soon see my own review for this wise book, but one of the central ideas of Pete Walker, emotional flashbacks, deserves its own full post. I can’t believe I, whith all my reading and studying, came accross this idea only now. It does resonate with my whole experience, my whole life.

My experience with emotional flashbacks

I remember precisely when I kind of understood on my own what it was. I was standing, waiting for a tramway to go to work one morning. It was more than a decade ago, but I still recall how beautiful Paris was in the morning light. My significant other was travelling for a few days, and as usual when it happened, I was feeling scared and confused. I hadn’t slept much.

That particular morning, I was pondering for the hundred’s time why, being a full grown adult, I was still feeling so scared when I had to sleep alone. This annoyed me to no end. I did not know what to do with all these feelings: how could I calm my fear down when there was no actual threat ? What was I supposed to do with all of this ? Could these emotions please leave me alone so that I could sleep ?

But instead of feeling the usual mix of confusion and disappointment in myself, I had a real “aha” moment. The answer came very clearly, out of nowhere: “This is just a memory“.

Of course I knew already the link between my past and my anxiety. It was a kind of intellectual awareness. Ok, it made sense for me to feel anxious when sleeping alone. But then what ? What could I do with this ?

All of the sudden I understood the trigger was in my present life (with no real threat), but what I was experiencing was in fact a memory of how I felt when left alone with my abuser as a child (faced with a very real threat). I had nothing specific to do with all these feelings, apart from acknowledging I once felt this way for very tangible reasons. There were not about my current life. Emotional flashbacks are a form of memory. And they have a way of making sure we hear them.

Emotional flashbacks vs flashbacks

In the clinical psychology litterature, you will find lengthy examples of what flashbacks look and feel like, for someone suffering from post traumatic stress disorder (or PTSD). Combat veterans, for example, can be triggered by a loud sound and find themselves back in combat. They see images, they hear sounds. It is a sensory experience.

Flashbacks can be a real problem for trauma survivors. But for some of us, there may be no sensory flashback at all. All we experience are emotional flashbacks. I’m not sure which one is worse, but I do know having emotional flashbacks without understanding what is happening is very, very disorienting. I did feel nuts and inadequate for a long time. I knew I was a trauma victim, but I could not recognize what was happening to me in the PTSD descriptions I was reading.

I’m angry, actually, because during my years of therapy, and my years of training to become a clinical psychologist, nobody talked about emotional flashbacks. I eventually understood them myself, and only recently found it described with a lot of intelligence and understanding by Pete Walker. But it did take longer than necessary to make sense of my experience.

And I’m quite clear it’s not a coincidence that for a long time what was described as post traumatic stress disorder was a result of combat (i.e. things which happen to adult males), and not what happens as a result of prolonged exposure to abuse (i.e. things that happen mainly to children and women). It says a lot about what (or who!) was deemed important in our society at the time.

So if you suspect you are going through emotional flashbacks, please read, investigate, reflect, talk. Make sense of the whole experience, so that you can integrate it. Realise how it has nothing to do with who you are, and everything to do with what happened to you. You are not nuts, and you are not inadequate. And you are certainly not alone.

What is an emotional flashback ?

An emotional flashback is an emotional state felt during a traumatic past, that reappears in our present without the original traumatic situation. Often, this flashback appears after a trigger which is somehow associated with our past trauma, but not in itself dangerous or traumatic. Sometimes unfortunately, the trigger is a very real traumatic experience in the present. The emotional flashback then adds past distress to what is happening now.

In my previous example, the trigger for me was sleeping alone. This reminded me – unconsciously – of times when I was left alone with my abuser. I was then suddenly feeling massive anxiety to the extent that I found it difficult to sleep. At the same time, I was seeing nothing threatening in my environment.

Another of my emotional flashbaks is described in this previous post : the trigger is the slightly frightening behaviour of a senior male colleague (with sometimes tiny clues : a strange look, a personal question, a bit of work related irritation). This leads me to a sudden loss of my boundaries, anxiety, and loads of dissociation. Again, all the while assessing accurately that there is nothing really worrying happening.

Often, we are not aware that the whole thing is happening to us (at least without some significant recovery work). And our adult, normal self is still able to assess our situation accurately and conclude that there is nothing to be afraid of. We are not delusional.

So for us what happens is that “out of the blue”, we suddenly feel horrible and have a strange behaviour. When we have come a long way in our recovery, we can even see that we are regressing to reactions we thought were behind us, like loosing our boundaries, our self esteem, or falling into bouts of depression. It can feel like back to square one after hard earned healing. And all of this, without any understandable reason. It is maddening.

How can we manage emotional flashbacks ?

In his book Complex PTDS, from surviving to thriving, Pete Walker explains 13 steps to take if you are in the middle of an emotional flashback. I strongly encourage you to read them if this is a problem for you.

I’ll describe here my own summarized version :

We can avoid the trigger altogether

I am generally not an advocate for avoidance, but this time, I think avoidance is our friend.

Let’s say you realize that going to a swimming pool starts a terrible emotional flashback, and your well being does not depend on swimming regularly, then, my friend, stop going to the swimming pool.

I know it sounds obvious. But I also know that some of us are so cut off from our emotions that we can go on for years doing something distressing even if we don’t have to do it. I certainly did, and I’m pretty sure I am not alone (you know, the “I should be able to do this without being stressed out, dammit!” type of reaction).

We can use our reason to disarm the trigger

Often, we cannot avoid triggers. In my examples above, I could not prevent my significant partner to have a life and to his own things. Nor did I want to stop working and retreat home to avoid work related triggers. I had to find other solutions.

Understanding what is really happening may be enough to stop the chaos: this is what happened with my “sleeping alone” trigger. Once I understood clearly what was happening, three good things happened :

The first result was that I stopped feeling crazy. My experience was making sense, as opposed to me going nuts out of the blue every now and then.

It also allowed me to plan ahead (a dinner with some friends, a really good book or film, a long conversation with someone who understood). Once I began to pay attention, I noticed I tended to isolate in these circumstances, and I noticed also that the more connected I was with other people, the better I felt. So overriding my natural impulses was a good idea.

And then, the way I was seeing the situation also changed everything. It may sound weird, but it improved the whole experience for me when I understood I was not really in distress: I was remembering a time when I was in distress.

I was not the one drowning in fear and sorrow; I was the one witnessing my past me drowning in fear and sorrow. I started to have more distance towards these feelings, and also to have genuine compassion for the girl I was. At the time, I had no one to share these feelings with. Now, the young part of me is sharing them with, well, myself. The adult, capable, far more powerful myself. I think it is only fair to let this girl vent and let me know how horrible it felt.

It does not necessarily make the emotional flashback disappear, I’m sorry to say. But it can make the whole experience far more manageable. These days when I have to sleep alone I am slightly nervous, but I do sleep soundly.

We can use these emotional flashbacks to heal further

As I explained in my previous post , I’m not sure I even want these episodes of spontaneous regression to disappear completely: they are windows to my history, and great healing opportunities.

In some instances what what we need to do is a lot of remembering, loads of anger, grieving and compassion, and extensive sharing with others. And this, repetitively, over the course of years. Because what happened to us was so traumatic, that there is simply no way to put it behind us easily.

And that’s ok. I don’t want to be triggered into an emotional flashback every second day like I used to. But I can live with one any now and then, if it helps me feeling better in the long run.

I would love to hear from you as well: do you have emotional flashbacks ? Can you share what they feel like for you? When did you understand what they were ?

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