What are emotional flashbacks?

This is a term I learned from Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD (highly recommend). It’s what we generally mean when we say “trigger”. It’s an overwhelming emotion that seems to come out of nowhere.

In a regular PTSD flashback, people are suddenly transported back to the traumatic event, and relive all the feelings and experiences. In CPTSD, the memory is often from an age where we don’t have any visual memory associated with it, so all we have is the emotions. Therefore it’s very hard to not assume the thing that just happened is what caused the intense emotions. So, we react wildly out of proportion to the situation at hand.

Take an example, your spouse forgets your birthday. You start spiraling into thoughts like, “How could they do this to me? Don’t they know how much this hurts? How could they?” It really feels like they couldn’t possibly both love you, and have forgot your birthday. Who does that?

It’s objectively an inconsiderate thing to do, but the level of hurt and upset we feel is because of a past abandonment, and the terror a baby feels at being abandoned. That is why it feels sometimes like we are going to die if we can’t get any resolution to our feelings. The hallmarks of an emotional flashback is that the feelings are intolerable. You would do anything to make them stop. A good rule of thumb is, “hysterical feelings are always historical”.

Pete Walker has a page with 13 Steps for Managing Emotional Flashbacks. I also recommend his page on Shrinking the Inner Critic.

I also have written about another option which is to go straight into them. Pete’s methods are definitely gentler, and I would start with those, until you have a solid foundation of self-love.

I also recommend Crappy Childhood Fairy’s video on Emotional Dysregulation and how to calm down when you get triggered in a social situation.

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Hi there! I'm Emma and I write about self-liberation. My writing is meant to share my process & inspire your own. If you want more frequent/current writing, visit my Substack Sparkly Dark, where I'm unpacking my neurodivergence.

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