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  • Writer's pictureKesley Cage

Emotional Flashbacks

Emotional flashbacks are a symptom of C-PTSD (complex post-traumatic stress disorder) and may happen when the emotions of a traumatic event flood back into our systems, due to a trigger. The emotional trigger may be something that reminds us of the time when the trauma happened, it could be a word, a piece of music, or even certain weather, or a time of the year.

Trauma sometimes creates long-term, ongoing mental health difficulties, such as chronic low mood and anxiety. However, even when a person who experienced trauma normally feels happy and well, it's possible to be triggered. Often we might not know why we feel the way we do, and clear and vivid memories of the trauma may or may not accompany the emotions. However, emotional flashbacks are usually severe and painful episodes that can leave a person feeling afraid, unsafe and with very strong emotions, which can be confusing.

If you think emotional flashbacks may be affecting you then, Psychotherapist, Pete Walker, provides 13 Steps to Manage Emotional Flashbacks, which can be helpful to familiarise yourself with, and print them off and keep them easy to see such as on the fridge. If emotional flashbacks affect you, the key is to remind yourself "I am having an emotional flashback" and not to beat yourself up for how you're feeling or think it strange or odd. It's normal for people who have experienced severe and pro-longed trauma in their lives to experience these flashbacks at some point, more or less often.

To heal from trauma and prevent emotional flashbacks from recurring is a slow and gradual process, helped along by therapy and good self-care. Someone with post-traumatic stress, may despair and think that they will always suffer terribly, but that's not true. Many people have made very good recoveries and rarely experience any symptoms at all. With the right approach you can reduce the psychological pain associated with emotional flashbacks, heal the traumatic memories and de-sensitise your triggers, so you are less likely to flashback.

Here are a few suggestions to heal emotional flashbacks from prevention to management and healing:

Desensitise your triggers

You may not know your triggers yet, so it's worthwhile exploring what might have triggered the start of an emotional flashback, by talking with a supportive friend or therapist. As soon as you can get to know your triggers, so you can isolate them and practise controlling your responses in exposure to them.

Keep a record of what triggers you. It may help to have these written in the back of a diary or self-care journal, where you can easily access them. Practise moderate exposure to these triggers, such as when you feel safe in meditation or with the support of another person.

As you safely encounter the triggers, practise calming and soothing your mind and body. You can try affirmations such as "Even though, I was hurt in the past, [the emotional trigger] is harmless to me right now and I am easily able to keep myself safe."

Use your imagination or art. Visualise your triggers in a safe context, and be as exaggerated as you need to, even if it makes you laugh.

Taking care of yourself in an emotional flashback

The Right Attitude

Don't be hard on yourself. Remind yourself it's only an emotional flashback and will soon pass with some good self-care. This is the most important part of all, if you refuse to put yourself down, despair, shame yourself or beat yourself up for having uncomfortable emotions and feelings, then you will lighten your emotional load, and the flashback will pass more smoothly out of your system.

Safe Connection

Get to therapy or see a friend if you can. Regulating your breathing, heart rate and emotions happens naturally in the presence of a caring person, and this can be very helpful to bring you down from a flashback. Call a helpline if you need to. If you're alone it may be helpful to listen to favourite songs, podcasts, music, or watch fun shows or inspiring films, so you can regulate with them for a while.

Emotional flashbacks may require a lot of support, so don't be afraid to let your friends and family know that you suffer, and create plans for what you'll do and talk about if does happen. Healthy distraction is one way to cope - talking about safe topics such as cooking, gardening or shared interests.

If you need to ask someone to listen to you as you talk about the memories, it's advisable to do so by keeping yourself at a distance e.g. "a part of me is having a really hard time at the moment, because s/he's been reminded of something that happened in the past. It was so hard for him/her, and she felt so afraid. He/she really needs some kindness and understanding to feel safe and calm again." This kind of speech, can help you to remember you are in the present moment, and prevent you from being overwhelmed by past emotions.

Connect with beauty any way that you can through being in nature, to enjoying images of nature online. Also very effective, is imagining a beautiful safe place, in quiet meditation (perhaps laying down with your knees up) where you can.

Using pen and paper, it can help to draw a 'parts map' of your mind so you can address everything that is going on inside you. Start with a big circle for you Self - the calm, compassionate and curious presence inside you. Then you can connect smaller circles to the Self, to represent the different aspects of you that may be awakened at this time of an emotional flashback e.g. the part of you who is trying to manage the trauma and is doing well, the part of you that isn't coping well but is doing its best, see if you can explore what the feelings and needs of these parts of your are, and draw symbols or give them names. This kind of activity can help you connect to yourself, manage complex emotions and restore inner balance.

Lasting Healing

Emotional flashbacks happen because the emotions of the trauma haven't been fully processed because you were so overwhelmed at the time. Healing may be slow and gradual, but it can be lasting. Give yourself all the time you need to heal and take care of yourself.

Each time an emotional flashback happens, is actually an opportunity to complete your next level of healing, and you may notice it starts to get easier by disidentifying from the emotions, and recognising that you are the conscious presence witnessing the chaos of the mind. With this level of self connection and care you can put affirmations (e.g. "I am healing and releasing these emotions"), and strategies (such as the above) to support you to heal. The deeper compassion, love and understanding you can have for yourself when going through an emotional flashback, the more you will be able to limit its effects, resolve the stress, and grow.

All the basics like meditation, social connection, food, water, exercise, work and leisure can provide valuable structure for you to stay focused on as you work through your emotions. You can more than survive after trauma, you can thrive.

I hope this article helps.

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