Emotional Flashbacks: My Personal Testimony and the Guide I Use to Manage Them

One of the most common symptoms of Complex PTSD is experiencing emotional flashbacks. These flashbacks are emotions related to past traumatic events that do not include visual images from memories. Emotional flashbacks are difficult to acknowledge but include; feelings of hypervigilance, endangerment, or intense feelings of hopelessness. 

C-PTSD: A Diagnosis

I want to share my experience with you. Emotional flashbacks are confusing, scary, and heartbreaking. There are so many of us that truly do not understand what an emotional flashback looks like or what it is, my goal is to clarify this for you and assist others in recognizing this symptom within themselves. 

I received the diagnosis of C-PTSD, anxiety, and depression a little over two years ago. Upon scheduling the appointment, I assumed that we would discuss anxiety and depression. I had done plenty of research and was confident they were things I struggled with. But, the diagnosis of C-PTSD caught me off-guard. Like most people, I assumed that PTSD was associated with survivors of war, kidnapping, severe car accidents, and other incidences of trauma. 

Throughout the appointment, we discussed emotional flashbacks and whether I had any experience with them. My initial response was no. I did not remember experiencing flashbacks in the theatrical sense. Then the psychiatrist asked a series of questions. Was I easily startled? Do I ever feel afraid without an identifiable trigger? Did I have trouble sleeping? Was I prone to nightmares? I responded honestly, assuming that my answers would lead me to the expected diagnosis of anxiety. 

Warning Signs

At the beginning of that appointment, the psychiatrist inquired about what brought me there. I told her that I had been dealing with anxious and depressive symptoms for most of my life, but something had happened recently that worried me. This circumstance was causing me to question my sanity even. So, I told her the story.

The Circumstance

“I sweep the shower curtain aside. A few water droplets fall from my hair before gliding down my body. My skin is bright red from the hot water. Steam rolls off of me in clouds. It’s been a difficult day, which ended in a loud and long argument with my husband. He finally fell asleep, so I snuck away to shower and calm myself down.

The scalding water distracted me from the thoughts of our fight. My head seemed clear, but the moment my foot touched the cold, smooth surface of the bathroom floor- something felt off.

The hair rose on the back of my neck. Goosebumps coated my arms and legs. Screams from the past echoed through my thoughts. The frantic beating of my heart became the pounding on the door. Someone was out there.

Fear wound itself around that troublesome thought and circulated within my mind until it flooded with panic. I pulled the bath towel tighter around my torso and shoulders in a feeble attempt to suffocate the terror. Then, I reached for the doorknob and grasped the cold metal. Unable to turn the knob, my mind bombarded me with images of a hulking figure awaiting me on the other side.

Scrambling away from the danger, I began to cry. Loud, gasping cries forced my hand over my mouth to silence them. Sliding myself to the floor, sobbing, I asked myself, “What is wrong with me?”

I reached for my phone on the sink next to me. My fingers wandered the counter until they found the familiar feel of my cell phone. Drawing the phone to my ear, I called my husband. Who I knew to be asleep in the bedroom upstairs. With each ring, a feeling of something dreadful happening strengthened. No answer. I called again and again. Still no answer.

The sobs grew louder, my shoulders heaved, and my body trembled. Panic pulsed through my body. Terror loomed outside of the door. I thought to myself, “This is insane. There is nothing out there. There is no one out there. Why am I so afraid?”

I repeated the mantra to myself. I pulled myself from the ground and reached for the doorknob again. As my fingers grazed the smooth, rounded edges, panic surged forward. Terror drowning out the mantra. I pulled my hand away and called my husband again.

After ten missed calls, he finally picked up, awoken from a dead sleep. I begged him to come downstairs to get me. When he did, I followed him to our bedroom and cried myself to sleep, feeling ashamed and broken. “

Opening Up

After telling her my chronicle of the event that led me to schedule an appointment, she informed me that the circumstance fit the description of an emotional flashback. While I doubt that this is the first time I ever experienced an emotional flashback, it was the first time that I recognized my response as abnormal. My brain and body were triggered by a situation that my conscious mind knew did not exist. While the situation was terrifying, the knowledge that it was not real terrified me even more. I truly felt as though my mind was working against me.

Healing the Inner Child

Once I received my diagnosis of complex PTSD, I began researching the condition heavily. My initial goal was to prove the psychiatrist wrong. But, through my research, I came to accept the diagnosis. Upon accepting the diagnosis, my research shifted to align with my new goal- treating the symptoms. That’s when I came across the concept of ‘Healing the Inner Child.’

Inner Work

Healing the inner child requires a large amount of inner work. For those of us with childhood trauma, we’ve pushed those negative emotions down and forced the memories deep into our subconscious. By doing this, we effectively abandon the inner child that so desperately needs our love and attention. That inner child cries out and surges to the surface during emotional flashbacks. 

Thirteen Steps to Managing Emotional Flashback. 

Dr. Pete Walker outlines a thirteen-step guide to managing emotional flashbacks in his book, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. Through the use of these steps, I can manage and sometimes alleviate the emotional effects of an emotional flashback. 

Tell yourself, “I am having a flashback.”

An emotional flashback is our body and brain’s way of working through traumatic events. In these flashbacks, we may feel the same fear, hopelessness, and sense of danger that we experienced during the trauma. We are experiencing an emotional memory. While the feelings are valid and real, the perceived danger is not.

Remind yourself, “I may be afraid, but I am not in danger.

During an emotional flashback, we may feel endangered, anxious, or trapped. To try to overcome these feelings, we must remind ourselves that we live in the present now where it’s safe. The danger of the past is far behind us.

Acknowledge your rights and needs for boundaries.

Many of us struggling with complex PTSD, struggle to set and validate boundaries. In the past, setting boundaries may have been dangerous or inflicted emotional pain. As capable adults, we can set boundaries, enforce them, and acknowledge when others are mistreating us. 

Reassure your inner child.

The trauma that results in complex PTSD often occurs in childhood. It is incredibly difficult for children to imagine their futures. Imagining a safe future when the present is dangerous, scary, or inescapable is even more difficult. We should reassure our inner children that they are safe in the present we’ve created to protect them. 

Remind yourself of other times you’ve overcome an emotional flashback.

We must tell our inner child that we are now an adult. We are strong and capable. We’ve created allies and have the skills necessary to protect ourselves. As it has in the past, this fear will subside and the flashback will pass. 

Tell your body to relax. 

Mentally note each muscle group and advise them to relax. Take deep breaths and feel the feelings that accompany our flashbacks. 

Resist the inner critic’s catastrophizing.

Our inner critic aims to shame, scare, and force us to abandon ourselves. An exaggeration of danger and constant attempts to control things that are out of our control increase our anxiety, fear, and sense of impending catastrophe. Tell your inner critic, “No! I will not put myself down.” Then remind yourself of all the positive qualities you possess and things you’ve accomplished. 

Allow yourself to properly grieve. 

Complex PTSD often develops due to the repression of feelings during childhood. When we felt that fear and pain were inescapable, our brains repressed our feelings as a survival instinct. Emotional flashbacks provide us with the opportunity to release and experience those repressed emotions. A large part of therapy for C-PTSD is grieving the loss of childhood. Expressing and healthily feeling these lost emotions allows us to heal.

Create safe relationships and cultivate support systems.

Experiencing emotional flashbacks in a public setting often induces feelings of shame, embarrassment, and hopelessness. We can not allow these feelings and fear to isolate us. Enlisting trusted friends and family members to assist us in managing our emotional flashbacks is incredibly beneficial to the healing process. 

Learn to identify the triggers of your emotional flashbacks. 

It can be difficult to identify the triggers of our emotional flashbacks. Triggers could be sights, smells, sounds, people, or situations. When possible we should avoid these triggers. When avoidance is impossible, the knowledge that something is a trigger can help us acknowledge the emotional flashback and sometimes prevent it from occurring. 

Determine what you are flashing back to. 

Emotional flashbacks can assist us in determining what our unmet developmental needs are and motivate us to meet these needs in the present. Many of us know where our trauma comes from. We can use our emotional flashbacks to work through the emotions and heal from the wounds the trauma has caused. 

Be patient and compassionate with yourself. 

The healing process for C-PTSD is slow, often spanning across years, decades, or a lifetime, but progress is progress. Over time, we can decrease the intensity, duration, and frequency of our emotional flashbacks. 

Be easy on yourself. Don’t look at the occurrence of the flashback as regression. 

The occurrence of an emotional flashback is often disappointing, but it is not a sign of regression or failure. These flashbacks are not our fault, we never asked for them. 


Published by alswartz

I am an aspiring novelist working on my first book. I have an interest in mental health and each of my works is related to mental health in some way.

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