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Emotional Flashbacks: The Sneaky, Painful, Confusing Symptoms You Never Saw Coming

Photo by Rendiansyah Nugroho on Unsplash

You may be wondering: What in the world is an emotional flashback?

You aren’t alone. Even as a trained therapist, I didn’t know that emotional flashbacks were a thing until I really started to dive into researching complex trauma.

Emotional flashbacks are sneaky. The reason most people don’t know about them is because most people who experience them didn’t know it had a name, or even that it was a thing.

Typically, we think of flashbacks as an experience in which vivid terrifying images, sounds, and memories come back to us. That’s what’s shown in the movies at least.

The truth is, emotional flashbacks are much sneakier than that. If you’ve had an emotional flashback, you might not even know it.

So What Exactly is an Emotional Flashback???

Emotional flashbacks happen when your brain believes you are in danger--physically or psychologically--because of something that reminded you of a past time when you were actually in danger.

Most of the time, you’ll be completely unaware of the trigger.

Most of the time, you’ll be completely unaware that you’re feeling the way you do because of a past experience.

Often times, you’ll just notice that you aren’t feeling great. You’ll notice that you are suddenly easily irritated. Or really tired. Or super anxious. Without any clue as to why.

Emotional flashbacks are the reason for those sudden, unconscious shifts in mood. You’ll likely feel whatever emotion you felt when you were in danger before. Even when you don’t recognize it as a past emotion.

How Do You Know If You’re Experiencing An Emotional Flashback?

My clients often ask me how they’ll know if they are in an emotional flashback or if they are truly feeling that way in the moment.

It is a really great question. Here’s my answer:

When you notice that you have a shift in emotions-- where you’re suddenly anxious, or really tired, or angry, or irritable, or whatever-- stop and ask yourself: Am I in danger right now?

A really important piece to remember is that danger does not have to be just physical. Psychological and emotional danger is just as likely, if not more likely, to cause a fight/flight/freeze/fawn response than a physical danger.

So, when you assess the situation, ask yourself if your emotional response is reasonable given the current situation, or does it seems out of place?

If your emotional response doesn’t seem appropriate or make much sense for the given situation, you’re likely experiencing an emotional flashback.

Then the question becomes, what do you do about it?

When You’re In An Emotional Flashback

One you’ve determined that you’re safe and actually experiencing an emotional flashback, the next step is to create a feeling of safety so that you can get out of survival mode and into living your life.

Pause. And Breathe.

I know, everyone tells you to just breathe. I know that’s so much easier said than done. And usually when you’re really upset, you probably want to punch someone in the face for suggesting it.

And yet, here I am, suggesting it. And here’s why.

When you’re stuck in an emotional flashback, your brain goes into survival mode, activating the “lizard brain,” or your innate survival instincts. When that happens, it is very difficult to fully engage parts of your brain that process emotions and help you think clearly.

One of the symptoms of being in survival mode is rapid, short breaths. By slowing down your breath, you’re helping your brain to also slow down, giving it the ability to re-engage those other parts of your brain.

One trick that often helps people learning to breathe deeply is to imagine blowing bubbles. When you blow bubbles, you take in a nice, deep breath, and then blow slowly but firmly out of your mouth.

So in your nose, out your mouth. You’ll want your out-breath to take about twice as long as your in-breath.

Breathe in. Count. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Or whatever feels right to you. Don’t feel like you need to force it. Do what feels comfortable.

The idea is for you to notice how long it takes to breathe in. For me, it’s a count of 5. So when I breathe out, I slow my breath down to a count of 10.

Do that 10 times. That’ll give your brain a nice opportunity to slow down and catch it’s breath, so to speak.

Self Soothe.

After you’ve taken some time to breathe, ask yourself:

What do I need in this moment to feel safe?

It could be that you need to be alone. Or maybe with someone who feels very safe.

You might need to wrap yourself in a blanket so that you can feel the comfort and protection of that.

You could need to wrap your arms tightly around a soft, fluffy stuffed animal and gently rock yourself, as you might have done as a child.

You might need to go to your favorite spot in nature, listen to the birds chirping and feel the breeze on your skin.

Maybe you have a favorite drink or food that reminds you of someone or a time when you felt most at ease and safe.

Whatever it is, take some time to ask yourself what makes you feel safe. If you’re not sure, try out some of these things and figure out which ones work best for you.

Creative Expression.

Creative expression is one of the best ways to work through the emotions.

Creative expression can take many forms--journaling, writing poetry, writing short stories, drawing, doodling, coloring, painting, crafts, pottery, dance, music, and so on.

No matter what you do, do something to connect with your creative self.

One of the many ways we are harmed in our childhood is learning to silence our creative selves. Expressing yourself through creativity can help release the built up emotions of the past.

It is important to note that creative expression for therapeutic purposes does not need to appear perfect. Your creative expression is meant to be a release. You may or may not choose to share it with others.

While you express yourself creatively, do so with compassion and non-judgmentally. If you notice you are judging yourself, just notice and gently allow yourself to go back to your work.

Want to Learn More About Your Emotional Flashbacks?

If you want to learn more about your emotional flashbacks & what you can do to start your healing process, check out this special offer:

This 2 part therapeutic offer helps you to:

*Gain awareness of how your childhood experiences are influencing you today so that you can stop being consumed with shame, start feeling self-compassion and self-acceptance, and improve your self-esteem.

*Identify your trauma type so that you have the insight and understanding needed to move forward with your life and start healing.

*Learn to recognize and avoid your common triggers so that you can feel safe, secure, and empowered.

*Receive tools to help you cope with unavoidable triggers so that you can feel relief in the present and hope for your future.

About the Author

I am a therapist for people recovering from an unhealthy, abusive, or neglectful childhood.

They struggle with low self-esteem, experience overwhelming depression and anxiety, and are fearful therapy isn’t really going to help them truly heal.

I help you begin healing on a deeper level so you can get relief from the pain and start creating the happiness and health you deserve.

Interested in working with me? Send me an email at to get started.

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