An emotional flashback is an emotional state of distress not necessarily experienced with specific memories or images. It is not like a memory from the past, in which we have an image of ourselves at a certain age, the people who were with us during an event, and know a somewhat clear sequence of what happened.
In Pete Walker’s excellent book on Complex PTSD, he describes emotional flashbacks as an amygdala hijacking, intense reactions in the emotional memory part of the brain that override the rational brain.
We re-experience, or flash back to the feeling-states of childhood – fear, shame, and abandonment. Being seen feels excruciatingly vulnerable. We feel little, fragile, helpless and life feels scary and hard.
We relive the worst emotional times of our childhood as a felt sense in our mindbody in the present. Although it is not always here, this feeling state can be pervasive and persistent. We might be going along feeling like we’re managing life then be hit with a wave of despair, hopelessness and feeling like we can’t manage. We collapse onto the couch, lose ourself shopping, or use any of our familiar escape routes.
When we are flashed back emotionally, we believe what we believed about ourselves then – that we are at fault and are fundamentally wrong or bad. Our inner critic can be especially aggressive, berating us and undermining our confidence.
There are many ways we can work with emotional flashbacks. To start, it is helpful to know that is what is going on. It is like a childhood memory but in more of an emotional or felt sense. It is generated by our primitive brain when our sense of threat is activated. Our nervous system is particularly susceptible to emotional flashbacks when we have a lot of stored trauma from the past.
Longer term, we can release stored trauma through inquiry and being present with ourselves in our body. We get to know and appreciate the energy in our body, whether it is a tight knot in the gut, clenched teeth, or shoulders up around our ears. We begin to see the associated memories of past hurts and fear. Our body begins to soften.
Right now, we can offer ourselves reassurance and support. We remind ourselves that we feel this way because of an emotional flashback, which is a trauma response. We will not feel like this forever. Any of the practices that bring us back into the present moment will help. Offer yourself unconditional support and kindness from a grounded, steadiness in this moment.
You could listen to this recording or make your own. What would you like to be reminded of when you feel this way? Record it and play it for yourself. Put your hand on your heart. Take a few deep breaths. Relax your body. You are safe now.