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Monday, January 30, 2023

Coping with Psychological Trauma: What Are Emotional Flashbacks?

Emotional flashbacks are intense emotional states which are triggered in the present by unresolved trauma from the past (see my article: Reacting to the Present Based on Your Traumatic Past).

Psychological Trauma and Emotional Flashbacks

Emotional flashbacks often occur to people with Complex Trauma.  

In this article, I'll define emotional flashbacks and give examples of these experiences.

What Are Emotional Flashbacks?
Emotional flashbacks occur when there is a triggering event.  The person who is having an emotional flashback experiences strong waves of emotion.  These experiences are related to traumatic experiences from the past, but an experience in the present triggers the emotional flashback.

Emotional flashbacks bring a person back into feeling-states they had during the original trauma, including traumatic childhood experiences.

How Are Emotional Flashbacks Different From Other Traumatic Flashbacks?
Flashbacks have specific memories associated with them. Often there is a visual image with flashbacks.

However, emotional flashbacks usually don't have visual images.  The person who is having an emotional flashback relives the emotions associated with trauma from the past.  This can make it confusing because, without the visual images related to a particular memory, the person often doesn't know why they're having the emotional flashback.

What Are Some of Symptoms of Emotional Flashbacks?
People who experience emotional flashbacks experience emotions related to past trauma including:
  • Fear
  • Feeling unsafe
  • Feeling abandoned
  • Shame
  • Sadness
  • A sense of impending doom
What Can Trigger an Emotional Flashback?
  • Sights
  • Sounds
  • Smells
  • People
  • Situations
  • Events
Examples of Emotional Flashbacks
The following examples are composites of many different clinical cases with all identifying information removed to illustrate how emotional flashbacks can occur:

After Jack gave a presentation at work to senior managers, he met with his director to get feedback. His director's feedback was overwhelmingly positive. He only had one minor  recommendation for Jack about how to improve one of the graphics.  Then, he concluded by congratulating Jack on a job well done.  Even though the director's feedback was very positive, when Jack heard the minor recommendation, he felt waves of intense fear and shame wash over him.  

Emotional Flashbacks at Work

When he was alone in his office, Jack felt overwhelmed by these emotions and he couldn't understand what was happening.  Although he remained in his office for the rest of the day, Jack felt like he was in two places at once--being in the office as well as feeling like he was somewhere else, but he didn't know where.  Later that day, when he had a session with his trauma therapist, who knew his family history, she told him he was having an emotional flashback which was related to his childhood history with an overly critical father, who beat him for making mistakes.  His therapist helped Jack with some grounding exercises to calm him down and then they processed the experience with Somatic Experiencing therapy.

As she walked into her kitchen, Alice overheard her mother-in-law tell another party guest that she admired Alice's intelligence.  As she stood in the kitchen holding the tray of appetizers, Alice felt her hands trembling so much that she had to set the tray down to steady herself against the counter.  She felt waves of sadness and shame, but she couldn't understand what was happening to her.  When her partner, Jane, came in to see what was keeping Alice from rejoining the party, Jane found Alice in a state of terror.  She had seen Alice like this before so she held her close and soothed her with supportive words.  

Emotional Flashbacks at Home

During her next trauma therapy session, Alice realized her emotional flashback was related to experiences she had as a child when she heard her mother praising Alice's sister for being the "pretty one" and saying with scorn that Alice was the "intelligent one" in the family.  Her mother's tone of disgust towards Alice conveyed how much more she preferred what she perceived as Alice's sister's beauty as compared to Alice's intelligence.  Even though, as an adult, Alice knew logically that she was also pretty and her sister was also intelligent, whenever anyone complimented her for being intelligent, on an emotional level, she felt abandoned, ashamed, fearful and sad.  She and her trauma therapist worked on these childhood memories using EMDR therapy.

Joe normally considered himself to be a person who was on an even keel emotionally--except whenever he was cut off by another driver on the road.  At those times, he would go into a rage.  During one incident when his wife was in the car, Joe was so enraged that he pursued the other driver for several miles, caught up with him at a red light and cursed at him.  

Emotional Flashbacks and Road Rage

His wife feared the other driver would get out of his car and there might be a physical confrontation, but he drove away instead.  She was so upset by this incident that she insisted Joe get help in therapy or she would never get into the car with him again.  When Joe began trauma therapy, he learned that his road rage experiences were connected to his childhood experiences of feeling helpless whenever his father beat him when the father was drunk.  During those times, Joe suppressed his fear, sadness and his tears because he was afraid his father would become even more angry if he allowed his emotions to show.  But, as an adult, these emotions and physical reactions remained suppressed in Joe's body and came out during these road rage incidents.  He and his therapist worked on his unresolved trauma using AEDP therapy.

A few weeks after Ina began dating Bill, she invited him up to her apartment.  She really liked Bill and she knew the feelings were mutual.  Until then, they had kissed but they had never had sex, which Ina really wanted to do.  After relaxing on the couch together where they cuddled, Ina invited Bill into the bedroom and they began to kiss and undress.  As they got into bed, Ina was aware that she was sexually aroused, but when Bill kissed her ear, she froze.  She felt waves of terror come over her and she jumped out of bed.  She didn't know what had come over her and she apologized to Bill.  Although he was very caring and understanding, Bill was confused because he didn't understand what was happening.  Since neither of them knew what was happening, they both agreed to cuddle instead of having sex that night.  

Emotional Flashback and a History of Sexual Abuse

The next day during her trauma therapy session, Ina' realized her emotional flashback was related to childhood memories of when her stepfather used to come into her bedroom after her mother had fallen asleep.  Just before he touched Ina's breasts, he would kiss her ear.  When Ina remembered these experiences in her therapy, her therapist provided Ina with psychoeducation about emotional flashbacks.  Soon after that, they worked on Ina's history of sexual abuse (see my article: Overcoming the Trauma of Sexual Abuse).

Getting Help in Trauma Therapy
Emotional flashbacks related to unresolved trauma are challenging experiences.

Rather than struggling on your own, seek help from a trauma therapist (see my article: What is a Trauma Therapist?).

Once you have worked through your traumatic history, you'll be free to live a more fulfilling life.

About Me
I am a licensed New York City psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, EFT, Somatic Experiencing and Sex Therapist.

I am a trauma therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.