Understanding and Coping with Emotional Flashbacks
What is an emotional flashback?
Posttraumatic emotional flashbacks go by several different names including: emotional “triggers”, flashbacks or simply “triggered.” Emotional flashbacks are intrusive thoughts or mental images of a lived traumatic experience where it may feel like a replay button is causing you to relive the trauma over and over.
Certain scents, noises, tastes, images, places, situations or people may create a flashback of the emotional or psychological trauma, making it feel as if it were happening all over again. For example, if you were at an airport awaiting your flight and witnessed an active shooter situation, you may experience mental or emotional flashbacks of that event if traveling to another airport or when hearing loud noises (i.e. fireworks, explosions in movies, or a clap of thunder). Similarly, if you experienced a traumatic death of a loved one, certain people, songs, scents or places can trigger those painful memories.
Oftentimes, the feelings associated with an emotional flashback leave a person feeling anxious, scared, overwhelmed, angry or with an intense feeling of dread or sadness. Feelings of shame can also accompany those who are re-experiencing emotional flashbacks as they may struggle to control their thoughts or emotions while reliving the memory. Perhaps most distressing for the person experiencing an emotional flashback is that they often do not know when or if a flashback will happen until it does, leaving them ill-prepared to proactively handle it.
Emotional flashbacks are considered part of the re-experiencing symptoms associated with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in which recurrent or significantly intrusive thoughts, dreams, or mental images of a traumatic event cause a person significant psychological and emotional distress. With re-experiencing symptoms, a person often feels as if they are repeatedly reliving the traumatic event on a loop. Other common symptoms of PTSD include hyperarousal (angry outbursts, difficulty falling or staying asleep, exaggerated startle responses, agitation, and inability to stay still) and avoidance symptoms which include avoiding conversations, people, places or things that can remind them of traumatic memories.
Symptoms of Emotional Flashbacks
Symptoms can differ for everyone and are often correlated with many factors including the type of traumatic event experienced such as whether it was an isolated event like a car accident or natural disaster, or the result of chronic abuse. Individual resiliency, whether that person has an active support system, prior history of trauma/PTSD and how often flashbacks are experienced are also important in assessing symptoms and in creating coping strategies.
Symptoms may include:
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Dissociation or “under water” feeling
- Emotional detachment
- Avoidance of activities, people or places
- Physical tremors
- Racing heart
- Muscle tension
- Stomach upset
- Fear of abandonment or rejection
Coping with Traumatic Flashbacks
Coping with the thoughts, feelings and physical sensations experienced from an emotional flashback can be challenging. First, an important distinction is whether the flashbacks are internal or external to you in better understanding them and in learning how to cope. For example, internal flashbacks often surround your personal feelings, behaviors or thoughts such as loneliness, dissociation, nervousness or a racing heart. External flashbacks usually involve other people, places or situations where a traumatic event may have happened. For example, an external flashback may include going to the store and seeing someone who reminds you of a person connected to your trauma, which may then cause you to relive the traumatic event.
If each time you go to the store you’re having an emotional flashback, this can provide insight and awareness into your situation so you can create goals that are functional for your healing. For example, journaling where you are as you are experiencing an emotional flashback, whether it is internal or external to you, and what you are feeling as you are experiencing the flashback can give you a better understanding of them.
Mindfulness and Grounding Exercises
The practice of mindfulness is about staying in the present, whether this is achieved one minute at a time or even a couple seconds at a time. The goal is to remain actively involved in what is going on around you while being able to keep your space separate from your environment. Through breath-work and refocusing your attention away from intrusive thoughts or experiences, it may help in coping with emotional flashbacks.
Similarly, grounding techniques are often used for helping cope with flashbacks or dissociation. Common grounding techniques include learning awareness of the flashback as it is occurring and then choosing a grounding strategy to help redirect and refocus awareness. Grounding strategies often use the five senses to help redirect attention, such as holding an ice cube in your hand, turning on sounds of nature, sitting in a warm bath, lighting scented candles, or chewing mint or cinnamon gum. Since the effects of PTSD can differ for everyone, it is important to speak with a trained professional who can help with what works best for you.
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