Ick. Emotional flashbacks. Easily the most difficult thing we face as survivors of abuse.
Emotional flashbacks are when an emotion comes out of nowhere. We might be enjoying a good book outside on a nice spring day…then bam! Suddenly we’re upset, scared, and traumatized.
It’s like two big hands grip us and toss us around, squeezing our heart with some completely surprising and uncalled-for feeling.
And, boy do these feel out of control.
They’re easily the most unpredictable PTSD symptom…and (unfortunately) also super damn common for us survivors.
So learning how to cope with them is extremely important. Luckily, that’s what this blog is all about!
Why emotional flashbacks are so confusing and overwhelming
Flashbacks in general are the sensation of being transported to the past, like we’re reliving something traumatic we once faced.
A lot of them are pure memories. A flash of what we once went through, making its way into our present mind.
Sometimes, they hit our body. Literal sensations of past trauma rise up—from pain to physical violation. Many times, these body sensations come with no other clarity, no idea why we are suddenly feeling this sensory experience.
Those are super tough too, but I think emotional flashbacks lead the crowd as the worst.
They hit us with an extremely strong, often overwhelming, wave of emotion. It’s raw and confusing, especially because they tend to feel like the emotion came from something happening in that moment. Our present moment.
It’s like the hole in our heart just opened up after losing someone we love, despite having nothing to grieve in our present life. Or it might be where we suddenly feel the need to run and escape, regardless of being logistically safe in the moment.
It’s basically an emotional hallucination.
Because they are pure emotions, it can take us a while to realize they’re a flashback. At first, it just feels like some loss or terror or danger happened right then, rather than the past coming up again and rearing its ugly head in the present.
2 critical questions to ask about your flashbacks
My emotional flashbacks are different from yours. They’re still the same PTSD mechanism, but they feel different from person to person.
It’s critical to understand your own flashbacks. This will help you feel more in control when they strike.
Here’s a few questions to ask about your emotional flashbacks. (You’ll want to contemplate these while you’re not in an actual flashback state.)
What emotions do I tend to feel the most?
What parts of my trauma caused those emotions? (Take your best guess if you’re not sure.)
As you gather more data about your flashbacks, you’ll find yourself in an empowered position to heal them. The key is to develop this skill with calmer emotions (like things you feel in the present moment caused by present moment situations, rather than emotional flashbacks). Then, they’ll kick into gear when an intense flood of feelings hits you.
Flashback Coping Skill #1: Accept the feeling
Radical acceptance (which I also talk about in this blog here) is life-changing. It’s all about bringing yourself compassion and understanding in the midst of every experience you have.
If a sudden wave of panic hits you, radical acceptance means you acknowledge the feeling as a part of your present experience. Make sure you’re logistically safe first and that you’re doing what you can to reduce the emotional discomfort. If it won’t budge—don’t resist it. Simply accept and honor its place in your life right then and there, no matter how uncomfortable it is.
Basically, it’s about giving yourself an inner hug and saying “Hey, it’s okay that I’m feeling this right now. This emotion, just like good emotions, deserves to be heard, listened to, and loved.”
It’s common for us to reject emotions because they’re uncomfortable.
Radical acceptance forces us to do the opposite, to bring these emotions into our hearts. When we stop resisting the feelings we have, then we can take all that energy (the energy spent on resisting them) and turn it towards healthy coping and healing.
Flashback coping skill #2: Ride the wave
When feelings hit, especially emotional flashbacks, they hit hard. It’s like we were standing on dry land one minute and then suddenly we’re looking up at a tsunami about to crash over us.
But, there is a way to survive this sudden tidal wave of feeling.
If you find something to hold onto, like a tree or pole, the wave can wash around you while you hold your breath. Eventually it will pass and you’ll be able to breathe again.
This tree is a metaphor for anything grounding. A sensory experience like taking deep breaths or these other anxiety coping skills. It could be an affirmation of “I am worthy of love” or “I can survive this” spoken over and over. You could freely journal or paint what you’re feeling.
Anything that gives you something to hold onto while the experience washes over you. This is how you ride the wave.
It’s also about remembering that you won’t have to hold your breath forever. Our bodies can only handle high emotions for a certain amount of time before it will naturally shut them off.
So, feel what you can right now, trusting that it won’t last forever. It might come back another time, sure, but then you can ride that new wave in the future too.
Ending the struggle of emotional flashbacks
The best thing you can do is practice both of these skills when you aren’t faced with completely overwhelming emotions.
Choose to ride a wave of discomfort, rather than a critically overpowering emotion.
Maybe instead of waiting for a fight or flight response, you practice riding milder anxiety before giving a presentation at work or while taking off on an airplane. Something more minor (whatever that means for you).
With radical acceptance, practice catching those thoughts that reject any and all emotions (you’ll notice these even with good ones!). If you hear “I shouldn’t feel this way right now,” pause and repeat this: “I am allowed to feel this way. I will honor this emotion and the message it carries for me, and I will accept it into my heart.”
As you practice these skills, your entire life will become easier to handle. You’ll tolerate distress better and, when those traumatic emotions rise out of the blue, these subconscious healing patterns will kick right in. They’ll keep you afloat.
This is the foundation for a life you’ll come to love. One you can thrive in, not just barely survive through.
Your next step: Comment below with one grounding strategy you’ll use to ride the emotional flashback wave!