What is an Emotional Flashback?

We’ve all heard about flashbacks.

Research into veteran’s mental health has lead to a wave of community sympathy and understanding for the distressing experiences of combat veterans and others who have immersive and intrusive flashbacks where they feel they are reliving the traumatic events of war and violence.

This acknowledgement is welcome - and not before time.

But what about the experience of flashback for people with Complex trauma?

Complex Trauma flashbacks are much harder to characterise, to understand - and to treat.

CPTSD caused by relational trauma in childhood can trigger extremely painful and overwhelming emotional flashbacks. The trauma will not be remembered directly but will be experienced as a felt sense of shame, worthlessness and sometimes, physical pain.

For people with Complex Trauma everyday life is an emotional minefield.

Triggers often go unrecognised. The environmental cues that cause these flashbacks can be subtle. Because the trauma and the effects of the trauma were not clearcut, symptoms such as flashbacks are very hard for people to disentangle from their “ordinary” experience of self and of life.

People with Complex Trauma will often think that there is something wrong with them and that they are just naturally out of control, “oversensitive” or reactive.

This can lead to intense self-criticism and shame as their inner critic takes over.

Most people with C-PTSD will have an untamed inner critic. This constant barrage of criticism and self-hate often echoes the voice of a harsh and judgemental parent. For people with complex relational trauma from childhood, the critical and negative parent lives forever - inside them. These judgemental voices never leave us, contributing to feelings of low self-esteem, shame and worthlessness.

Trauma expert Christine Courtois has described people with CPTSD as having been “marinated in trauma.”

When trauma is caused by emotional abuse within an attachment relationship, there is no escape.

Because the trauma happens at sensitive times in a child’s development, it becomes embedded in who and how they are.

Instead of being exploration and learning focused, a young child experiencing chronic trauma will be focused on survival.

This means that their brain will develop in a way that is oriented to anticipating and responding to threat. These early pathways and structures will remain into adulthood, and people with complex trauma will have a much higher stress response and be more sensitive to any environmental triggers which could be interpreted as threatening.

This doesn’t mean just a physical threat.

Emotional or social threats such as abandonment, rejection and criticism can be triggering for people with this condition.

In response to these threats, they will often get stuck in the feelings which they had as young children. Those around them might think they are “overreacting’, but people with CPTSD are responding in the only way they know how.

They developed these responses in order to survive.

This is not a conscious process and many people with complex trauma will be at a loss to explain or understand their responses.

Emotional flashbacks are not discrete images or clear memories like the flashbacks of people with PTSD. They are overwhelming emotional states and responses that are very hard to differentiate from an “ordinary” experience of self.

Trauma Counselling for Emotional Flashbacks

Psychotherapy and counselling for trauma will help you recognise the effects of early trauma on your development. Education around the trauma will help you understand what is going on and why - and that it is not your fault.

For people with CPTSD, a close, non-judgemental and non-shaming relationship will be important for recovery. This special therapeutic relationship is what will help heal you.

As you come to understand yourself better through the prism of a therapeutic relationship, you will be able to see the difference between an “ordinary” response to triggers and a trauma based emotional flashback.

This self-awareness will allow you to keep the “thinking part” of your brain active and help you to make better choices and lead a more enjoyable, less reactive life.

Trauma counselling will help you understand your emotions and manage the ups and downs of life, including potentially triggering situations.

As you heal and grow, you will learn to practice self-compassion.

Over time your inner critic will become less powerful, freeing you to pursue your own goals without the pressure to be perfect.

Learning to understand and have compassion for your reactions and emotional responses will help you live the life you want to live.

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