How to Manage Emotional Flashbacks after Trauma

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Flashbacks are a common symptom of trauma disorders. Trauma is an experience of unmanageable stress following exposure to a threat or actual harm. Trauma can be responsible for lasting symptoms that rob you of a fulfilling life. A flashback is an intense recollection of a traumatic experience.

Emotional flashbacks don’t always give us time to prepare for them, and they can be jarring and upsetting when they happen. You might feel an extreme rush of emotions that feel out of your control. They occur when our system is triggered, and they can be difficult and challenging to understand.

Overtime, you might be uncomfortable with your feelings. You might even become afraid of your feelings.

While emotional flashbacks have the potential to be debilitating for many, it is possible to heal from this overwhelming symptom of trauma. By exploring different feelings and learning to experience emotion without fear, you can regain control of your body and your life. 

By exploring different feelings and learning to experience emotion without fear, you can regain control of your body and your life. 
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What are emotional flashbacks?

An emotional flashback is when it feels like you are reliving a traumatic experience, even when you’re not. These might feel like extremely intense emotions, physical sensations, or body activation for self-defense. This gives you a sense that you are actively reliving it and your body may feel the same level of terror, sadness, anger, hopelessness, etc.

These emotional experiences can feel very extreme and can be very difficult to endure. They can cause major changes in a person’s capacity to function – both in terms of day-to-day experiences as well as longer term goals.

What’s the difference between a flashback and an emotional flashback?

A flashback is when you experience a memory so intensely, it feels like you are reliving the traumatic experience. When your memory is horrifying to think about, the flashback is equally horrifying to endure.

Each person might experience flashback differently, but some common patterns include:

 

    • Vivid memories in the form of daydreams, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and hallucinations. It may feel like you’re seeing the traumatic experience happen, whether you see it in your head (like a daydream) or immersed in your environment (like a hallucination).
    • Dissociation in the form of detachment from reality, a loss of time, disconnection from the environment, or splitting
    • Terror in the form of panic attack, intense emotions, or total shut down
group of women sitting in front of NYC skyline
Emotional flashbacks can activate your fight, flight, or freeze response.

Emotional flashbacks are not what you see or hear in your memory- they are how you feel in your body during that memory. Emotional flashbacks are as diverse as the people experiencing them, but some common patterns include:

    • Extreme experience of emotions that feel out of control or confusing. Common emotions in flashbacks are fear, sadness, anger, or shame.
    • Activation of fight, flight, freeze, etc. where the body reacts as if facing actual threat of harm in real time.
    • Physical sensation memory such as pressure, pain, pleasure, or other body reactions.

It’s typical for flashbacks and emotional flashbacks to occur at the same time. With the flashback, you might see yourself standing outside in the cold. With an emotional flashback, you might start to shiver and tense up and become panicked about freezing.

 

Why do emotional flashbacks happen?

Your brain and body remember experiences to help you survive.

Your brain and body remember things to help you survive. When you are exposed to something scary or dangerous, your brain prioritizes that information, as it is deemed extra-important. The goal of this is to help you stay safe the next time you encounter something dangerous. This information is stored in your nervous system, which is a fast-acting messenger system.

One important type of information stored following a trauma is sensory information, or bits of memory connected to your five senses. Your brain might hold on to things you smelled, things you saw, things you heard, things you tasted, and things you felt. This includes emotions you might have been feeling before, during, or after the trauma. When a feeling is connected to a trauma trigger, you might experience an emotional flashback.

When we get a sense of fear or anxiety, our nervous system sends messages all throughout our body to get us ready for self-defense. This is called your fight/flight/freeze response. The nervous system might make your heart race, or make your breathing shallow, or cause your muscles to get tight. When you have a history of trauma, however, you feel scared more often, and your self-defense is more intense. This means your emotions might also feel more intense. Your body’s attempt at keeping you safe may actually add to your distress.

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Your nervous system is a fast-acting messenger system. 

Where is emotional trauma stored?

Pretend you’re walking in the woods and you see a bear. That bear is a real threat to your safety, and it is best if you can get into self-defense mode as quickly as possible. Your muscles will need to tense, your heart rate will need to increase, and your breathing will need to change. Your digestion system will temporarily turn off, your thinking brain will temporarily turn off, and all of your resources will be directed at staying safe from the bear.

Because of how quick this process needs to be, information about safety is stored in your body. Muscle memory is when your body can react without having to think about it. Overtime, muscle memory becomes a reflex, and happens outside of your control.

For people with trauma, your muscle memory causes your body to feel like it did during your trauma. The reaction in your body can make you feel like you’re actively reliving it, even if you logically know you’re safe.

What triggers emotional flashbacks?

Our brain has a very large task of maintaining survival. If someone has been exposed to an experience where this survival was threatened, your brain is going to do everything it can to protect you from that experience moving forward. Unfortunately, the mechanisms for survival require your brain to remind you of possible threats, even if it is distressing. For people with trauma, your feelings become intertwined with these messages of threat.

You will always encounter emotions in some form. Feelings act as messages that tell you about your environment. 

You will always encounter emotions in some form. Feelings act as messages that tell you about your environment. Sadness tells you that you are in pain. Happiness tells you that you are doing something you like. Anger tells you there has been an injustice. Feelings are all around you all the time. While some feelings may be uncomfortable, feelings in general are a normal part of the human experience.

Unfortunately, emotional flashbacks are triggered when you experience a feeling. If you were sad during your trauma, feeling sad could trigger an emotional flashback. This might mean anytime you are sad, you also feel incredibly afraid. What makes emotional flashbacks complicated, is they can be triggered by very neutral, or even positive, experiences. Something as safe as a sad movie could put you into a state of fight or flight.

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Whether it’s riding in a car on a road trip or jumping in a lake, we feel our memories all the time.  

What does an actual emotional flashback feel like?

We feel our memories all the time. Think about how you’re feeling while envisioning these scenarios to deepen your understanding of how your mind and body revisit experiences.

 

  •  Imagine for a moment that you are riding in a car on an interstate, and you roll the window down. Can you feel the sensation of air on your skin?
  •  Imagine you’re about to jump into a cold pool of water. Maybe you felt your body tense and you held your breath.
  •  Imagine the last time you experienced something funny. Did your face smile or get a twitch in your belly?

Emotional flashbacks are more insidious. Traumatic memories often include experiences of harm, neglect, and danger. Imagine instead, that the emotions and physical sensations you recall are associated with a memory of extreme terror, hopelessness, or overwhelm. 

When thinking about your traumatic experiences, you might get a sensation of heat or heaviness in your chest. You might be hit with a sudden experience of terror, discomfort, or an extreme sensation that feels out of control. Your body might instantly become unsafe or unstable.

Why do I experience emotional flashbacks?

Emotional flashbacks are often a symptom of trauma. Trauma is a broad experience, and many people have trauma even if they don’t realize it. Flashbacks of any kind usually come from your own lived experience, but not always.

Firsthand flashbacks are when the memory is your own. You might be the target of the threat, or you were observing someone else being the target of the threat.

Secondhand flashbacks, or vicarious trauma, are when the memory was created after hearing about someone else’s story. You might hear about trauma from a family member in vivid detail, causing an intense emotional reaction.

You might have emotional flashbacks even if you can’t remember your trauma. If you are having emotional flashbacks, you could benefit from talking with a trained therapist to explore a possible history of trauma.

How can I cope with emotional flashbacks?

Emotional flashbacks are triggered by feelings, and feelings are impossible to hide from. You might find yourself trying to numb certain emotions or avoid certain emotions. Emotional flashbacks can increase the risk of dissociation as you attempt to escape your body. This might increase isolation as an attempt to reduce triggers in your life.

Over time, you may rely on harmful or unhealthy coping behaviors that impact your mental health. Someone might overuse  substances, develop eating disorders, or engage in self-harm. These are all attempts that may provide relief in the short-term to control how you feel and to reduce the emotional reaction in your body.

By learning that emotional flashbacks are a form of muscle memory for your body to keep you safe, you can develop a better understanding for how to manage them.

By learning that emotional flashbacks are a form of muscle memory for your body to keep you safe, you can develop a better understanding for how to manage them. Working with a trauma therapist can help you learn new ways to respond to feelings and practice being safe in your body. Trauma therapy can safely expose you to certain feelings to help you get used to the experience and make it less scary. You might practice “feeling sad” in therapy and then get support through skills and compassion.

Over time, this makes the feeling more tolerable and for some- even enjoyable! We can’t imagine feeling better until we actually experience feeling better. While feelings of sadness might cause a lot of pain now, you could one day enjoy a sad song or watching a sad movie. Maybe happiness has been tarnished by a difficult experience, but in the future you might find yourself feeling joy and appreciation. When we learn to understand our feelings, our feelings become safer to feel.

We can’t imagine feeling better until we actually experience feeling better.
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Strategies for coping with unwanted flashbacks

Emotional flashbacks can sometimes feel impossible to tolerate, but with practice and support, you can learn to sit in your emotions more comfortably. According to Pete Walker, a specialist in complex trauma, there are steps that can be taken to improve your ability to experience your feelings.

 

  1. Work with a qualified professional to learn about your emotions, recognize triggers that set-off your flashbacks, and to safely reconnect with your body.
  2. Participate in targeted trauma therapy to establish peace in your present life, to nurture your wounded parts, and practice safely recalling your traumatic experiences.
  3. Learn and implement tools to improve safety, to challenge critical thoughts, and to improve supportive connections with others.
  4. Remember that all emotions can be safe, your flashbacks will pass with time, and be patient with yourself as the most stable recovery is a process that takes time.

With support, healing is possible

Through healing, you’ll be able to release yourself from the paralysis of fear and avoidance. 

Emotional flashbacks can be overwhelming and often unbearable. Through healing, you’ll be able to release yourself from the paralysis of fear and avoidance. You’ll be able to trust yourself more and be less overwhelmed by the possibility of reliving past pain and traumatic experiences with intolerable emotion.

Learning how to manage your flashbacks and heal from some of your experiences can give you the freedom to move forward in a new way – a way that allows you to live how you desire and deserve. The goal is to no longer avoid unwanted feelings and to live life more present and open. 

group of women sitting in front of NYC skyline
Learning how to manage your flashbacks and heal from some of your experiences can give you the freedom to move forward in a new way – a way that allows you to live how you desire and deserve.

Although healing from trauma can feel like a daunting journey, it’s possible with the right support. As a trauma therapist, I have experience helping clients just like you learn how to successfully cope with unwanted emotions and emotional flashbacks so that they can feel better.

My wish for you is that you’ve found this helpful in your journey to also begin healing from trauma. If any of this resonates with you or you’d like to learn more about how to manage emotional flashbacks, please get in touch with me today.

 

Your Turn: How have you managed emotional flashbacks? What’s helped you along the way? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Monica Amorosi

Monica Amorosi is a licensed trauma therapist who specializes in helping clients develop distress tolerance, and making stress feel less overwhelming. She enjoys working with clients to help them develop a deeper sense of compassion, reduce self-sabotaging behaviors, and lead more fulfilling lives.

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