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What It's Like to Feel an 'Emotional Flashback'


I awake highly anxious. It takes me hours to realize that perhaps I’ve had another nightmare — only this time, despite being triggered, I don’t remember the nitty gritty.

I can’t shake the anxiety; something awful is about to happen, surely. But nothing comes, nothing happens. I feel it in every inch of my body, stomach flipping over, chest tight, breathing shallow. I get frustrated; I just want how I’m feeling to stop. I try to go back to sleep, to shut out the overwhelming foreboding haze. But I can’t sleep; my body is in fight or flight mode— what I’d imagine drinking 3 liters of energy drink would feel like — so I toss and turn.

Finally accepting sleep will not work, I take a bath, with a nice smelling bath bomb. Smells especially help to ground me. I spend so much of my life stuck in a hypervigilant state that my senses of smell and hearing are pretty sensitive.

This time, the bath did not work. I’m not having any visuals with this flashback, but the emotions surrounding it are extreme. Panic, fear, loneliness, abandonment, loss of control, infinity thinking (this will never end), and so much emotional pain tries to break through.

I realize I’m holding the emotional pain in; I don’t want to feel it. It hurts so much that it feels it might finally finish me off.

But… I am stuck.

I’m stuck at a point in my recovery, where I can’t keep pushing, hurting or eating the pain away. But I don’t know how to release it, nor accept the trauma either.

I am an adult now; I am in control, even when it feels like I’m not. I lock into how I’m feeling, the fear, knowing it’s too much even for me as an adult to bear. And I wonder: How did my little-self bear so much? How did I survive? The emotion starts to come. Bittersweet tears start to fall.

I try to tell my little-self that we are safe now, but every single time, I can’t get to her. I can see her, I reach out, but a force holds me back; a force won’t let me get to her.

I wonder what that force is: Is it me? Is it my toxic inner critic? And as I wonder this, I get a visual flashback — a flashback of my little-self sobbing, so hard I’m almost sick, and comfort is purposefully withheld from me.

Was this what my little-self was trying to bring to my attention? Maybe I’ll never know. But as I was sat, coloring in a coffee shop, trying to slow my body down, I felt compelled to write to try and end up at the core of this flashback, and this is where I ended up.

This is just a microscopic view of what a flashback can feel like. This will not be the last, nor is it the worst. They will always come, particularly as I can’t guess or even work out the triggers at times. And as you can see, I don’t even get a break whilst I sleep; triggers and processing occur through vivid and often horrific dreams. Sometimes it’s visual, sometimes emotional, and sometimes both.

It comes to me that maybe the core of this is that I still don’t feel safe. The sadness hits once again — to think that something every person on this earth deserves is to feel safe, and I’m not sure I’ve ever had one day where I’ve felt safe in my whole life.

No, I’ve not been in combat, nor in a war zone, but you don’t need to have been to live with the effects of trauma. And unfortunately, when there are multiple traumas (or complex trauma) for your brain to untangle, it’s not just a case of peeling back the onion skin; when you get a few layers in, you find that actually, it’s some kind of helical matrix. No wonder this journey is so tough. One step forward, ten backward, five forward. It’s a bit like a game of Snakes and Ladders.

The aftermath? Exhaustion. Physically, emotionally. What strikes me most in this moment is that I’m sorry. I’m sorry for being so hard on both myself and my little-self. I understand your pain. I understand how overwhelming it was and is. I understand why you shut it away. I understand why you built so many walls. But, we have time. Just take as long as you need. I’ll be here. I can’t promise I won’t make mistakes, but I will be here.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

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Thinkstock photo via Photodjo