What Are Emotional Flashbacks?
Updated: Oct 31, 2022
This blog post is written by Melissa Barsotti, LCSW, a private practice therapist in San Diego, California, specializing in complex trauma and dissociation.
Are there times that you feel you have lost total control over your emotions or behavior?
You may be experiencing an emotional flashback. Pete Walker, therapist, and author, in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, says: emotional flashbacks are likely "moments when you are triggered by a reminder of abuse you have experienced in the past, such as yelling, loud sounds, seeing someone intoxicated, doing too much, and feeling alone, or an unmet need that occurred at a specific time in development."
To clarify, when I use the word abuse, I am referring not only to physical and sexual abuse, but to emotional abuse and neglect. You may not think of your childhood as emotionally neglectful, but if you experienced either of your caregivers to be uninterested, critical, or punishing of you for having needs, and showing emotions, you likely experienced abuse. This topic deserves a blog of its own. Don't worry, I am on it!
Back to emotional flashbacks. One of my most beloved therapists, Dr. Claudia David once shared that when I find myself responding to an event/situation/person in a way that is disproportionate to the situation, then, the real cause for my emotional outburst is really HISTORICAL, and not present-day. Historical, meaning, in my past, part of my childhood.
Emotional Flashbacks are sudden, and are moments when you behave in a way that is not consistent with your present-day chronological age, but instead, consistent with the age you were when you experienced overwhelming feelings, such as fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief, and depression, in response to the abuse you endured.
At the time of the abuse, your nervous system was alerted of the danger you experienced emotionally/mentally/spiritually/physically. If the original trauma is not attended to and healed, then you will continue to respond in a fight/flight/freeze/fawn manner every time you are encountered with a trigger that is related to your past abuse.
Most people are familiar with fight/flight response, but less familiar with freeze and fawn. Pete Walker refers to these as "innate automatic responses to danger in all human beings." Freeze typically means dissociating in some way (we all do this to some degree). Fawn refers to a pattern of behavior where an individual essentially loses/forfeits their sense of self in order to meet the demands/wishes and expectations of others. Essentially, codependent behavior can be seen as a Fawn response. All of the 4Fs were at one point incredibly necessary for survival at the point in which they were first developed. Hopefully, now as an adult, the conditions and people that were abusive and oppressive no longer are present, so therefore, these responses may not be adaptive in your present day life.
One last thing to mention about emotional flashbacks is that the neocortex, the part of your brain responsible for executive functioning, problem-solving, and wise adult behavior, is basically off-line, and not available to you when your nervous system is responding to a perceived threat, such as the trigger that set off the emotional flashback. Don't take my word for it. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score, states that when our nervous system is activated by a trauma trigger, "it partially shuts down the higher brain, our conscious mind, and propels the body to run, hide, fight, or on occasion, freeze." In addition, Dr. Bessel van der Kolk also reveals that "when something reminds traumatized people of the past, the right brain reacts as if the traumatic event were happening in the present. Because the left brain is not working very well, they may not be aware that they are reexperiencing, and reenacting the past. They are just furious, terrified, enraged, ashamed, or frozen. "
Note: Dr. Bessel van der Kolk is the founder and medical director of the Trauma Center in Brookline, Massachusetts. He is also a professor of psychiatry at the Boston University School of Medicine and the director of the National Complex Trauma Treatment Network.
So, if you find yourself feeling extremely anxious, panicky, numb, small, young, fragile, powerless, helpless, and even suicidal, you may be experiencing an emotional flashback. Luckily, flashbacks of any kind are symptoms/signs that something is wrong and you need to reach out for help. Emotional wounds/trauma/complex trauma, PTSD are incredibly treatable. These experiences are not a life sentence. There are specific trauma treatments, such as EMDR and ego state work that will help you in recovering or developing your identity, your needs, and boundaries. With the right treatment, you will no longer be held hostage by your emotions or nervous system.
Van der Kolk, B. A. (2015). The body keeps the score: brain, mind, and body in the healing of trauma. New York, New York, Penguin Books.
Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: from surviving to thriving : a guide and map for recovering from childhood trauma. First Edition. Lafayette, CA, Azure Coyote.