themighty logo

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


Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Complex trauma is defined as ongoing or repeated interpersonal trauma (abuse) within a captivity situation, where the victim perceives no viable means to escape.

Most ongoing child abuse is complex trauma. The child is vulnerable, at the mercy of the caregivers and unable to escape. Other examples where complex trauma can occur are sex trafficking, prisoners of war and severe domestic violence.

Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD) can result from enduring complex trauma.

Complex PTSD has specific symptoms not listed within the diagnostic criteria for (uncomplicated) post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

These specific symptoms are deep and pervasive issues with trust, abandonment, emotion regulation, isolation and many more.

One of the most common yet hardest to understand and recognize symptom is an emotional flashback. These are where emotions from the past are triggered by something occurring now. These emotional flashbacks do not have a visual aspect to them like flashbacks many living with PTSD experience. When there is something visual, it is far easier to understand it is a flashback.

When there is no visual component, most survivors feel like they are having intense emotions and really don’t understand why. They may seem “overdramatic” in their emotions, and those close to the survivor will see these intense emotions are not rational.

Once I realized I was experiencing emotional flashbacks, I began to work on understanding and recognizing them as they were occurring. It was a long and challenging process, requiring a lot of effort and a willingness to really work on this. However, it was well worth the effort.

I learned to recognize emotional flashbacks by needing to become really honest about my intense emotions, and really honest about whether there was something valid occurring now to cause those emotions. Was my emotional state inappropriate or not valid, for what was occurring now? Sometimes it was. But, sometimes, it wasn’t.

Here’s an example of this: I saw something on social media that caused an intense emotional response in me. It created deep feelings of being unsafe and scared. I had to stop and think about whether the current issue actually warranted and was rationally causing these intense emotions. The answer was no, and I was completely safe. So, why was I feeling like a scared child? I was experiencing an emotional flashback. This was due to some abusive situation in the past that made me fearful and scared. At the time of the trauma, my emotional response of fear was rational and valid.

Then, I learned to soothe myself by telling myself “I am safe.” I tell myself, “this issue is due to my past, and not due to something occurring now.” And I learned the different ways to comfort, ground myself, use mindfulness and distraction techniques to help me manage these emotional flashbacks and the intense emotions they triggered.

This process does require us being able to be honest with ourselves. We need self-control, awareness and capacity for rational thinking to discern whether the situation occurring now is an issue.

This capacity can take time to learn; I know, for me, it was over a year of concentrating on this before I could discern quickly if I was having an emotional flashback.

This has been an invaluable part of my healing process. It has helped me deal with a painful symptom and consequence of complex trauma. By being able to manage and reduce my intense emotions, my quality of life improved.

These emotional flashbacks are difficult to understand, recognize and then manage, but it is possible.

~ Lilly Hope Lucario

For more information on complex trauma, complex PTSD, see the author’s website.

Photo by Kendal James on Unsplash