Emotional Flashbacks

You walk into your living room after getting out of bed in the morning feeling apprehensive and afraid, but there is nothing to be afraid of that you can observe. An overwhelming sense that something terrible is about to happen permeates your thoughts, and you do not feel at all safe.

You have just experienced an emotional flashback.

This article will examine the definition of emotional flashbacks, their causes, and some grounding techniques to help you when they attack.

What are Emotional Flashbacks?

To explain the definition of emotional flashbacks, it is first necessary to define what are flashbacks.

Flashbacks are what we all think of when we think of the term flashback from the movies or television where veterans of war relive the memories they have of combat. They see, hear, smell, feel, and even taste what was going on at that moment in the past where they became traumatized.

Flashbacks are easily definable and connectable to a singular traumatic event that can occur anytime in a person’s life, such as a soldier living through an enemy attack or a child experiencing living through a tornado.

Emotional flashbacks are a different animal altogether as there are no physical sensations involved but only emotions disconnected from the here and now. As was stated in a previous post about emotional flashbacks, they are like a nightmare from which you cannot wake.  

Emotional flashbacks experienced by people living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD) are charged responses causes by stimuli in the present that causes the experiencer to “flash” to a set of repetitive traumatic events in the past.

Pete Walker, a complex post-traumatic stress disorder specialist, offers the following definition of emotional flashbacks in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.

“Emotional flashbacks are sudden and often prolonged regressions to the overwhelming feeling-states of being an abused/abandoned child. These feelings states can include overwhelming fear, shame, alienation, rage, grief, and depression. They also include unnecessary triggering of our fight/flight instincts.”

Regression is a defense mechanism that awakens when survivors face anxiety-filled events that cause them to retreat to a childhood state. In regression, full-grown adults flashback back to their emotions as children of feeling abandoned, abused, and helpless or to overwhelming emotions of fear, rage, shame, depression, and grief that trigger a strong fight/flight/freeze response.

These unfortunate survivors feel overwhelmed with emotions they cannot recognize to events they cannot remember or connect the emotions to.

Child Abuse and Emotional Flashbacks?

Repeated child abuse, where there is no adult to support the child, is the largest contributor to the formation of emotional flashbacks in adulthood.

To better understand emotional flashbacks, we must first examine child abuse in its different forms. This abuse includes all of the following.

Neglect. Neglect involves adults who fail to meet a child’s basic physical and emotional needs, including:

  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Clothing
  • Education
  • Supervision
  • Protection from predators
  • Medical and dental care

Neglect is difficult to define for doctors or other concerned adults as families with little money might seem neglectful but are not.

Physical abuse. This form of child abuse involves the intentional use of physical force to harm a child for any reason. Examples may include but are not limited to the following:

  • Shaking a child
  • Throwing a child
  • Hitting a child
  • Pinching a child
  • Slapping a child
  • Tripping a child
  • Burning or scalding a child
  • Poisoning a child
  • Withholding medication, food, or sleep from a child

There are, unfortunately, many other forms of physical child abuse.  

Emotional Abuse. Emotional abuse happens when an adult purposefully wounds a child’s self-worth by telling them they are inadequate, worthless, and unloved through verbal and nonverbal speech.

Some examples of emotional abuse might be as follows:

  • Now allowing the child to express views or opinions
  • Threatening the child
  • Bullying the child
  • Using emotional blackmail
  • Not allowing the child physical contact
  • Not telling the child they are loved
  • Not showing affection towards the child

Emotional abuse is complicated for adults outside the family unit to recognize as it is usually conducted behind closed doors.

Verbal Abuse.  Verbal abuse is a painful form of child abuse afflicting millions of children in the United States and worldwide. Verbal aggression tends to be discounted in modern-day culture and ignored because of the belief that verbal abuse is only words, and people can get over words.

However, there are many long term damages and scars left by verbal abuse. Forms of verbal abuse include the following:

  • Telling a child they are bad, no good, or a mistake
  • Mocking a child
  • Yelling at a child
  • Shouting at a child to silence them
  • Verbally threatening a child

Verbal abuse is often overlooked by doctors and other concerned adults, and the thought is that they will be fine and grow out of their shy ways. However, like with other types of abuse, the wounds are deep from verbal abuse and take time and effort to heal.

Narcissistic abuse. Narcissistic abuse encompasses physical, financial, emotional, or sexual abuse perpetrated against a child by a parent or caregiver who is a narcissist.  The narcissist’s goal is to manipulate and control a sense of worthlessness in the child and instill a sense of worthlessness in them.

Unfortunately, narcissistic abuse symptoms remain silent until adulthood, when they come to the forefront with force because the narcissist in the home demands their family be seen as normal and healthy.

However, as adults, these signs and symptoms may spring to life:

  • Children of narcissists feel they are insane
  • Children of narcissists feel often question themselves
  • They feel only the narcissist in their lives finds them worthy of love
  • They have developed debilitating self-doubt
  • They hold the narcissist in their lives in high esteem

It is clear that a child of a narcissist who has experienced narcissistic abuse does not own their life, but rather their life belongs to their narcissistic parent or caregiver whose wants, and needs come first.

Understanding that child abuse of one or many types is the cause of emotional flashbacks and many other mental health problems.

Grounding Techniques That Help with Emotional Flashbacks

Emotional flashbacks are often triggered by events or something that alerts the five senses that the past trauma is going to happen again. To gain control is vital for survivors to practice grounding techniques if they wish to move forward without worry and gain some form of normalcy in their lives. Grounding techniques are not a cure for emotional flashbacks; they are only a way to control our reaction to them.

Below are some ideas for survivors who read these articles to consider that will help overcome emotional flashbacks.

Use repetitive movements. Doing repetitive movements such as knitting, bouncing a ball, coloring, or drumming can calm you.

Focus on your breathing. Often survivors will do one of two things when they are in an emotional flashback; they will hold their breath or hyperventilate. By focusing on your breathing and taking slow, deep breaths through your abdomen, you can calm yourself. 

Feeling spaced out or dissociated? Often survivors use a go-to survival technique brought to them courtesy of their hippocampus. Either they will feel very unreal and spaced out, or they will leave the room in dissociation.

There are several methods of keeping yourself grounded in these circumstances.

  • Hold an ice cube in your hand and let it melt or until you feel pain
  • Push your feet into the ground or grind them into the carpet
  • Stand up and stomp your feet
  • Stretching a rubber band and allowing it to flick your arm
  • Gently pinch yourself
  • Gently push your fingernails into the palms of your hands
  • Stretch your body
  • Look around the room and name 5 things that begin with C
  • Focus on someone else talking
  • Repeatedly name the day, date, time, and year either out loud or in your mind

The sky is the limit of how many grounding techniques one can conjure to help survivors remain grounded and shorten the length of time they are caught up in an emotional flashback.

Ending Our Time Together

This piece was the first in a four-part series and was meant to offer a glimpse into the definition and causes of emotional flashbacks. We will delve deeply into the science behind emotional flashbacks and modern treatments for these life-altering events in future posts.

In the meantime, please consider putting to good use the information you have learned here to recognize that what you are experiencing is normal for where you have been and that you are not to blame.

“After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment.” ~ Judith Lewis Herman

“Instead of saying ‘I’m damaged, I’m broken, I have trust issues.” I say, “I’m healing, I’m rediscovering myself, I’m starting over.” ~ Horacio Jones


Walker, P. M.A. (2013). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. Azure Coyote


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