The Mighty Logo

The C-PTSD Symptom You May Not Have Heard Of

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Recently, in a matter of 20 seconds, my mind made some fantastical leaps. This is a semi-regular occurrence for me.

My brain jumped from: “Ow, my hips hurt” to I’m the worst person in the world and everyone hates me.” I then proceed to cry in bed with some intermittent napping for around three hours. If you’re wondering what this is all about, or if it sounds familiar to something you’ve experienced, you are in the right place to learn more.

• What is PTSD?

In case you didn’t guess, I am not an evil villain and the vast majority of people I know do not dislike me. I know this all now, but in those types of moments, the feelings are very real to me. Yet, seconds after I finally pulled myself out of this spiral, I was already kindheartedly laughing at myself. So what’s this all about?

I believe I was experiencing something that’s referred to as an emotional flashback. This is a newer term, which is associated with Complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD). C-PTSD is also a newer concept and you may read my explanation of it in my previous writing here. I experience C-PTSD as well as major depressive disorder (MDD).

You likely have heard of the term “flashback” before. In reference to mental illness, it generally involves a person having an intense re-experiencing of a past trauma, as though it were presently occurring. In C-PTSD flashbacks may differ in that they do not focus on one particular event or memory.

C-PTSD is, for lack of a better word… complex. It typically involves long-standing trauma, and so the mind is less likely to focus in on one particular event. Emotional flashbacks differ in that it is more about the individual being tossed into the emotions rather than the memories of the traumas they experienced. It can be quite confusing and overwhelming, often you do not make an immediate mental connection that what you are experiencing is in fact an emotional flashback.

Here’s a little example that may help with understanding this concept. Imagine that for one year, every day you picked up a crayon, and when you did you got an electric shock. Twenty years later, are you going to recall all 365 times you were shocked, or is it more likely you’ll just automatically feel scared when you see a crayon? Most likely it’ll be you feel some emotion around crayons. This isn’t a perfect explanation but hopefully it’s beneficial.

So in my case my mind went from: “Ow, my hips hurt” to “I’m the worst person in the world and everyone hates me” for a reason. Practically speaking I was feeling sore because I had gotten lost in a project for four hours all while ill-advisedly sitting on the floor. This should have been an “oops, silly me, I will try not to do that again” moment.  Instead I berated myself for being “careless,” which devolved into me convincing myself if I made an early appointment for treatment I’d be seen as needy. That then spiraled into: “Actually everyone sees you that way already because you are horrible.” Of course this is all balderdash.

My mind did this quickly, and while I write it out here as “thoughts,” it was in fact really based in emotion. These emotions were, as you’ve guessed, flashbacks to things from the past. I won’t go into the deep corners of my psyche with you today, but a quick recap would be something like: being afraid to speak about my trauma, feeling I had no one to turn to or that it would not go well if I did, and then believing it’s somehow my fault aka: I’m a “horrible person.” If you look at my flashback, you can almost draw a direct line to what I just outlined here.

Now after decades of trauma recovery, I do regularly catch on to what’s happening, and can sometimes quickly pull myself out from an emotional flashback (or at least in a few hours). Other times it continues to remain confusing, overwhelming and a mystery to me. In this case it may linger for days, weeks, even months. Knowing these flashbacks even exist though has been half the battle. In case you are curious, I eventually pulled myself out this time by texting a friend and then after that going to another friends for an outdoor backyard movie. Neither proclaimed their undying hatred for me.

What helps with reorienting to the present will be different with each person, and may vary from one episode to the next as well. I have a few options that I find helpful, which frankly don’t always work, but can. Strategies that often help me include: making human contact including over text, going to therapy, writing poetry or stream of consciousness, gentle brief mindfulness exercises, completing a put off chore, a short walk, TV/movie distraction and probably some other stuff. While they are not always useful, sometimes naps help, too.

I find that trying to “think my way out” does not work for me, as my emotion and logic do not compute in that moment. Additionally, I find there is a bit of a tightrope walk involved because there can be an odd balance of trying to honor the emotion and the place it comes from and yet not “becoming” the emotion. It’s complicated. In the end there is no perfect cookie-cutter way to work through an emotional flashback. We can only do our best with the knowledge and resources available to us in that moment. It takes a lot of time and effort to walk the path of trauma recovery, and there are going to be bumpy roads on the journey. I want you to know that if, like me, you continue to sometimes get lost in this type of flashback, you aren’t alone. The feelings you feel are real, and those feelings are not you. Your emotions will eventually shift.

Have you heard of emotional flashbacks before? Do you think you’ve had one, or know that you have? What are some of your strategies for finding your way through one of these flashbacks? Other ideas and thoughts? Please comment below!

If you enjoyed this article, please take a moment to check out some of my other articles here on The Mighty. If you’d like to follow along with my journey, you can find me on Instagram as @mentalhealthyxe.

Photo by Anton Malanin on Unsplash

Originally published: May 12, 2021
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home