Emotional flashbacks – when your emotional response is out of proportion

14 minutes reading time

There are two psychology books that completely changed the quality of my life. The first one is Feeling Good by David Burns, where I learned about cognitive distortions and how you can manage them with emotional accounting and other similar exercises.

Emotional accounting as a thought-correction process helped me tame my inner critic, focus on more positive aspects of life, be satisfied with good enough at work and in relationships, and avoid all-or-nothing thinking and acting.

The second book that completely changed my life and helped me understand myself better is Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving by Pete Walker. In the book, I learned about the outer critic (constant judgment of other people) that usually accompanies the inner critic and even more importantly, about the emotional flashback. I finally understood the missing puzzle that you can’t deal with solely through emotional accounting.

In the past year or so, I practiced emotional accounting a lot. I learned to recognize cognitive distortions, categorize them and correct them with a rational response and self-defense. I learned to talk back to the inner critic and shrink his voice. He’s still there, he often still gets too loud, but now I know how to manage it and I’m getting better and better at it.

But here comes the missing puzzle piece. From time to time, I get into a really intense emotional state, without identifying any severe negative thoughts. There is only a trigger, and I feel like somebody is trying to murder me or that the world is going to end.

The intense experience happens more on the physical level than in the mind. When it happens, it definitely releases and enhances the power of the inner and outer critics, but the experience has a much wider force and effect. I can feel the happening in my bones.

They are emotional flashbacks. In this blog post, I will focus on what they are and extremely honestly and openly talk about my own experience of how they’re messing with my everyday calmness and the quality of life (and how I am learning to manage them). If you identify that something similar is happening to you, reading this blog post might be a real epiphany.

Emotional flashbacks

What are emotional flashbacks?

You experience an emotional flashback when a trigger in the environment reminds you of your childhood pain, suffering and traumatic situations. A subject, object, item, place, expression or any other kind of trigger reminds you of all the past events that caused you constant pain. There is a small similarity between the current and past event, and that triggers an emotional flashback.

For example, somebody says an unjust critique directed at you and subconsciously in a second you experience all the pain of the thousands of times when one of your parents criticized you.

An emotional flashback happens as a delayed response to childhood abuse. When you were a child, you didn’t have any power to defend and protect yourself. You could only suffer. In addition to that, you had to see your parents as perfect, because they were your protectors and providers, so you blamed yourself for all their toxic behaviors. That means a great deal of repressed pain and unfairness.

The right thing to do would be to scream, to stand up for yourself, to protect yourself, to find love, but you were not in a position to do so. All you could do is witness (physical, verbal, emotional or spiritual) abuse, repress your feelings and go on with it. At the end of the day, a child can survive almost anything.

No family is perfect, but there is a limit where it becomes toxic

Don’t get confused at this point. These things don’t only happen in poor, alcoholic and broken families. It’s happening in 1/3 or more families that look normal at the first glance. By having complete power over children, it’s extremely easy for a parent to break a child; or to mock or criticize them; or to leave them on their own.

I’ve seen dozens of “healthy and normal families” where parents labeled their children as stupid, clumsy etc., or they were constantly criticizing them or hugging family members was a strange thing to do. There is absolutely no perfect family, but there is a limit where an environment becomes a toxic one, and starts causing great psychological damage to a child.

The problem is that it’s hard to admit to yourself (and others) that your family was toxic. You have to see your parents as perfect and that may also continue when you grow up. Next to that, it hurts like hell and it feels very shameful to admit that you don’t have a nice, healthy loving family. But living in a lie doesn’t pay off.

Experiencing emotional flashbacks

Experiencing an emotional flashback

Now let’s get back to emotional flashbacks. They are direct messages of your painful past, alerting you how unfairly you were treated and how much pain you had to suffer. They are a cry for help from your inner child (your emotional self and damaged soul) to somehow address your traumatic emotional past.

One situation in the present (a trigger) reminds you of everything you suffered in the past that’s yet unresolved.

The emotional flashback isn’t happening only on a psychological level. Your body also gets into an adrenalized state, same as when you are facing danger. But when you’re experiencing an emotional flashback there is no real danger.

Amygdala, the part of your brain responsible for fears and pleasures, hijacks the rational part of the brain with an intense reaction in the memory part of the brain, reliving and bringing forward all the painful past experiences.

Even small seemingly unimportant events can trigger the amygdala to a severe emotional response, which completely blocks rational thinking, even when there is no real danger (someone is 5 minutes late, somebody interrupts you, you make an error in your email etc.). When they happen, emotional flashbacks get you into severe regression, stigmatized by:

  • 4F – flight, fight, freeze or fawn response
  • Strong mixture of experiencing fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief and depression, all at the same time, where one negative feeling dominates the experience
  • Overwhelming negative thoughts; the inner and outer critics awaken

When you are in an emotional flashback, you panic – internally or even externally in your irrational words and actions. Emotional flashbacks often lead to you feeling like something is life-threatening, even if it’s not.

You lose all of your self-confidence, feelings of helplessness arise, severe self-criticism and judgement of others start happening. We can also add social anxiety, depression, relationship problems, oversensitivity and even suicidal thoughts to the list. It can last from a few seconds to a few days or even weeks.

The triggers and the 4Fs

Every emotional flashback has a trigger. Something in the environment triggers all the memories. It’s a stimulus in the environment that reminds you of a childhood trauma and pushes you back into unbearable feelings of those times. Triggers can be external or internal.

Triggers are most often places, people, events, things, facial expressions, specific styles of communication, specific words, and so on.

Examples of triggers are visiting your parents or caretakers who acted toxic, family gatherings, a specific type of a shaming tone or words (cynicism, humiliation, criticism), authority figures, asking for help, making a mistake, not feeling perfect, physical pain, public appearance, a specific look, when you don’t meet your high standards, nightmares and bad dreams, and so on.

If you are experiencing emotional flashbacks, you have to observe yourself (with mindfulness) and find your own triggers. Not everything is an emotional flashback, but many things are:

Practical examples
  • You can’t stand the face of your coworker. Seeing the person probably triggers an emotional flashback.
  • You worked the hardest, but your boss didn’t give you a raise, so you are outraged and depressed for days. You’re probably experiencing an emotional flashback.
  • Somebody takes away your right of way on the road and you get into the road rage mood. You are probably experiencing an emotional flashback.
  • The boss corrects you at work and you feel so humiliated and unworthy. It’s probably an emotional flashback.

Emotional flashbacks push you into one of the four responses to danger. That is a very intense experience on the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual level. But when you are experiencing an emotional flashback there is no real danger, you’re only responding in an unhealthy way.

You are acting out of proportion in a specific situation. You are acting reactively, self-destructively and irrationally. Here are unhealthy 4F responses you resort to when experiencing an emotional flashback:

Fight Flight Freeze Fawn
Narcissistic Obsessive-Compulsive Dissociative Codependent
Explosive Panicky Contracting Obsequious
Controlling / Enslaving Rushing on worrying Hiding Servitude
Entitlement Drive-ness Isolation Loss of self
Type-A Adrenaline junky Couch potato People-pleaser
Bully Busyholic Space case Doormat
Autocrat Micromanager Hermit Slave
Demand perfection Perfectionist Achievement-phobic Social perfectionism
Sociopath Mood disorder-Bipolar Schizophrenic D.V. Victim
Conduct disorder ADHD ADD Parentified child

Source: Complex PTSD, Page 107

My own experience with emotional flashbacks

Let’s start with two examples from my own life. When I go for a walk and suddenly somebody passes me on a bike, I experience an emotional flashback. My inner response is similar to somebody just putting a knife on my neck. It takes a few seconds for the rational part of my brain to start working again and then everything calms down. That’s a short but intense type of an emotional flashback.

Another example is driving in a cab in a foreign country. When I sit in a cab, there is always a “background program” running in my brain monitoring and checking where the cab driver is taking me, if they look suspicious etc. It’s not that intense, it lasts for the whole ride, but I just can’t really relax. That’s a second example of an emotional flashback. There is no real danger, but I’m experiencing an event as such.

Emotional flashbacks are a big part of my life, I’m used to them and you will rarely notice me experiencing them. It’s all happening internally and I’m quite a courageous person, so there is no way an emotional flashback would stop me from doing something I really want. But I never understood what was this shit (sorry about the language), until I read the book Complex PTSD (here is my summary). Since then, I categorized my emotional flashbacks pretty well.

I categorized my internal flashbacks into three different types:

  • Short, but really intense ones
  • Obsessive ones that last until the trigger is out of my sight
  • Long ones, where I get completely lost in daydreaming, melancholy and fantasies

Short but intense ones are when something unexpected appears in the environment; something I couldn’t anticipate and calculate how dangerous it is. My rational part gets hijacked for a second, I get into the 4F (fight, flight, freeze, fawn) response and as soon as I calculate the fact that I’m not really in danger, things calm down and I forget about it. A nice example is the one described with a bike passing by.

Obsessive ones are when something is bothering me with a person, place or any other subject or object. I somehow feel unsafe and I just can’t stop thinking about it until I change my position and the trigger is out of my sight. I constantly pay attention to what’s happening to the trigger or stimulus. An example would be a ride with a cab or if I’m in a hotel where I don’t feel safe enough.

Very long emotional flashbacks are the trickiest ones. Usually I feel like I don’t have enough control or that I am trapped in a certain situation (like I was when I was a child) and that leads me into melancholic fantasizing and severe angering states that last for days. That happens at least a few times per year, especially when things don’t go as planned. Yes, that’s why I’m learning and writing about how to be more flexible in life.

I identified more than 30 different triggers of emotional flashbacks and the list is getting longer and longer with time. Identifying triggers helps me a lot with managing them.

Short intense emotional flashbacks

Here is the list of triggers of short intense emotional flashbacks that I am currently aware of:

  • When I’m alone at night and I hear any voices
  • When somebody passes me by unexpectedly from behind (walking, running, with a bike, a car etc.)
  • When I break the rules or a law (small things)
  • When I encounter a police officer or an army person
  • When I need to kill an insect
  • When I need to fight for money (fair payment)
  • If I don’t leave a tip
  • Often when I am eating (emotional eating)
  • If I do something clumsy or if I make a mistake
  • When I hear an ambulance
  • Any loud noises
  • Whenever I put money into my savings account
  • Seeing my father (photo etc.) – we have no contact
  • When something unfair happens (it can be in a movie or in real life)
  • A few specific insulting phrases
  • Any physical pain
  • Unexpected physical contact
  • When I have to wait for somebody
  • When I have to reject somebody or if I get rejected
  • When I need to stand up for myself and assert myself more aggressively
  • When I want to take enough space
  • When I have to ask a question in room full of people

Medium-lasting obsessive emotional flashbacks

Here is the list of triggers of medium intense emotional flashbacks that I am currently aware of (they end when the trigger is gone):

  • Two or more people arguing or fighting
  • If I feel like I’m not in a safe territory (district, hotel, etc.)
  • Passing by a group of people who don’t look very nice
  • Dealing with strangers in an unknown environment
  • People partying loudly or laughing out loud
  • When I encounter a person that’s physically stronger than me
  • When I spend time with somebody who makes (much) more money than me
  • Passing by some types of dogs
  • Dangerous animals – spiders, snakes etc.
  • Some types of non-dangerous animals – insects, red ants etc.
  • When I leave my possessions alone and somebody could steal them (bike etc.)
  • When the person I’m talking to is moody
  • Asking for help or somebody giving me something
  • Passing by a block where I was raised as a child
  • My birthday

Long emotional flashbacks where I get completely lost

Here is the list of triggers of short intense emotional flashbacks that I am currently aware of:

  • When things don’t go as I wanted or planned
  • Not doing all the work I had on to-do list (not finishing my sprint)
  • Interruptions of steady patterns in relationships (something unexpected happens in a relationship)
  • Cheating (and sometimes sexual history)
  • Ending things (a relationship, finishing a diploma, ending a project etc.)
  • Any big rejections or unfair happenings
  • A particularly melancholic music

How come you aren’t going crazy?

I know, this is a long list of triggers. But most of the listed situations trigger the emotional flashbacks very subtly. I needed years of reflection to identify so many of them. And most of them can be managed quickly. So it’s not like I’m going crazy every day, stuck only in emotional flashbacks. But many people are.

If you spent years by my side, you would never notice that I’m experiencing emotional flashbacks, or you’d notice it extremely rarely. Many people who know me and read this post will be quite surprised. Not that I’m hiding the flashbacks, they’re just such an integral part of how I experience life that I just live with them and move on. I notice them, I manage them, and everything seems normal. But …

No situation gets better with the passage of time; things only get better when they are addressed and the problem is confronted. Many times, emotional flashbacks do mess up the quality of my life.

Many times, they do cause severe tension and get me stuck in the 4F response. They definitely contributed to a poor body posture, pinched nerves, stomach problems, periods of melancholy and anger, and sometimes an extreme loss of temper. Even if you try to ignore them, they are still there and they suck.

They also mess a lot with having a healthy and smart life strategy. Your instinctively react based on the 4F response. If you react, you can’t be proactive. My first coping mechanism is flight, then fawn, then fight and the last one is freeze. I can be a pretty anxious, obsessive perfectionist who gets lost in work and improvements. I also know very well how to put the needs of others before mine like a martyr as well as how to lose temper and enjoy narcissistic tendencies. And sometimes I freeze.

No situation gets better only with the passage of time.

Dealing with emotional flashbacks

Dealing and managing emotional flashbacks

Emotional flashbacks aren’t healthy and they do cause a lot of damage. They can happen very subtly, it’s hard to admit that you’re experiencing them, but living in a lie only makes things worse. That’s why emotional flashbacks need to be addressed. I will share with you a few approaches that help me.

Analyzing the triggers and reminders

The first step that might help a lot is to understand better. You have to become mindful of your internal cognitive and emotional processes and become aware when you’re experiencing an emotional flashback. There are three things you want to figure out:

  1. Trigger – What exactly triggered the emotional flashback.
  2. Thoughts and emotions – What kind of thoughts are going through your head and what kind of emotions you’re experiencing (anger, fear, humiliation etc.).
  3. What is the crying about – Every trigger reminds you of some injustice, traumatic event, abuse or unfairness. Try to figure out what it’s all about. You can start asking yourself questions like who, when, where, why, what etc.

I always have a piece of paper and a pen with me or a digital notebook, and when I notice that I’m experiencing an emotional flashback I use the D.E.A.R. concept – I drop everything and reflect. I start writing down everything that comes to my mind, ask myself “why” hundreds of times and then I connect the dots.

As you can see, I’ve identified more than 30 triggers. I can connect all of them to different traumatic childhood experiences, abuse or neglect. Now I understand exactly why something is happening. Once you know about emotional flashbacks, you know when you’re experiencing one. At that moment, you have to sit down and do self-reflection.

Employ the D.E.A.R. concept – Drop everything and reflect.

Dealing with the inner critic

The inner critic is constantly trying to prevent you from dealing with emotional flashbacks. Writing this article alone is one big emotional flashback for me and my inner critic is trying to stop me from publishing it in order to not experience public shame and humiliation. But I learned how to say “stop” to the inner critic.

Why can I easily override the inner critic? Because I know what it’s like before you get familiar about what emotional flashbacks are and after that. It’s a huge epiphany and relief. You know what you’re dealing with. And if one single person gets an idea of what’s happening to them and how they can deal with it, it’s worth it.

Well, the inner critic is constantly at work, minimizing the damage done in your upbringing (“it wasn’t so bad”), explaining to you that you’re only a pussy (“it wasn’t that hard, you’re just weak”), and constantly explaining how nothing is good enough, how everybody is flawed and how emotional flashbacks are a stupid concept.

Emotional accounting is how to deal with the inner critic. First you have to tame your critic a little bit, then you can start dealing with emotional flashbacks. You can do this part while analyzing the triggers and reminders, but if you don’t shut down the inner critic, you have zero chance of managing emotional flashbacks properly.

Developing a healthy relationship with yourself

Listen to yourself. Explore your inner world. Be kind to yourself like you are to other people (well, most of them). Never go to war with yourself. Take good care of your body, emotions, mind and soul. Build yourself motivational environment. These are all my mantras that help me deal with emotional flashbacks.

I direct emotional flashbacks into exploring my past, grieving the lost childhood, undertaking creative endeavors and developing empathy. In other words, I listen to what my emotions have to tell me. I listen to what the scream is all about. And I’m trying to calm the scream down by being nice to myself.

In the book Complex PTSD, there are 13 steps for managing emotional flashbacks. It’s definitely a process I recommend you to follow. For me, the process is a bit complicated, so I simplified it.

I first say to myself that I’m experiencing an emotional flashback and identify what the trigger was. That enables me to get my brain back from being hijacked by the amygdala. Then I remind myself that I am not a helpless child anymore and thus I try to express my feelings in a healthy manner. In the last step, I listen to what the scream is all about, let myself grieve and I try to relax (jogging, stretching, deep breathing).

Many times I succeed at managing the emotional flashback, and many times I fail. Sometimes I know that there is no other option but to wait for it to pass – when a strong one happens. There’s nothing wrong with it, because life is not a bed of roses. All these happenings make my personality a lot richer.

Having realistic expectations about the emotional flashbacks

marbles in a jarIn the end, I have realistic expectations. Scientific research shows that you can never completely get rid of emotional flashbacks. Imagine a glass with one red marble in a glass bowl. Then you start throwing green marbles into the bowl. Soon you cannot see the red marble anymore, but it’s still there. The red marble is a painful experience, and the green ones are new positive experiences in your adult life.

By experiencing more and more positive situations – like safe relationships, deep positive emotional experiences, enjoying life and growing personally, you are slowly gaining a more accurate picture of reality. These are the new green marbles in the bowl. The world isn’t that dark. It takes a lot of work on yourself with all the described exercises to make emotional flashbacks and cognitive distortions exceptions, not a rule.

But even when you achieve that, the red marble is still there under all those green marbles. Sometimes it still washes ashore. Especially in new situations, which you don’t know how to manage yet. But that mustn’t stop you. Dealing with emotional flashbacks is a never-ending process. You have to accept that.

You have to welcome the idea that you are stronger than any emotional flashback, because you have many tools to deal with them and in the end, you don’t have to be perfect. You just need a strong vision for yourself that’s bigger than any obstacle on your way; including these flashbacks. And if you find your emotional flashbacks too strong, many times a professional therapy is the best way to go. Good luck.

About the author

Consulting and management coaching

Blaž Kos has managed venture capital investments over the past 12 years and participated in the development of the start-up ecosystem in the region. Today, he advises companies on growth strategies, process optimization, the introduction of lean agile methods and the digitalization of business. In addition to the Slovenian blog, he also writes an English blog, which was selected among the 50 best bloggers in the world in the category of personal and business growth.
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