Emotional flashbacks and childhood trauma
“Memories are what warms you up from the inside. But they’re also what tears you apart.” -Haruki Murakami
How many times have you come across the quote “making memories” on social media? Or the phrase “taking a trip down memory lane”? I like to think of memories as trinkets from our past. They are evidence of a life well lived and an existence thoroughly explored. Some memories sparkle and fill us with happiness – the first time you visited a sandy beach, or saw the ocean, or watched the sun set under a pink sky.
But other memories eat us up inside. They make us feel locked in panic, despair and self-loathing. These memories often sneak up on us when we least expect it. The briefest smell of whisky can take you back to a childhood steeped in alcohol abuse. The cry of a baby can trigger a painful memory of weeping alone in a bedroom with no adult to comfort you. Even the touch of another person can be enough to remind you of the scariest and most dangerous memories you keep inside.
Bad memories can trigger emotional flashbacks. Emotional flashbacks happen when an adult regresses back to the same fearful, frightened and shame-prone state that they experienced as a child. They can be incredibly overwhelming, disturbing and disruptive to daily life. It can also be difficult to spot when you are flashing back to an earlier trauma which increase the feeling of mental disturbance. Here are some signs to look out for if you are anxious that you are experiencing an emotional flashback:
When you fall into a flashback, your brain starts to go into overdrive and your alarm response, also called the ‘fight-or-flight’ response, quickly kicks in. This is centred in a part of your brain called the amygdala, and gets triggered whenever it senses potential danger. The function of the amygdala is to keep you safe so it’s important that it is sensitive to any danger cues. When you experience childhood trauma or abuse, you grow up in an unsafe environment full of fear and terror. This impacts the development of your amygdala, and it becomes incredibly sensitive…and so begins to make mistakes. It starts to trigger your alarm response even though there is no danger - and pretty soon you find yourself living in a constant state of anxiety, hypervigilance and adrenaline rushes.
Impending Sense of Doom
Emotional flashbacks rewinds you to a time when you were at your most vulnerable and helpless. You are emotionally reliving an experience which made you feel completely overwhelmed and out of control. This can feel very unsettling and confusing especially if there has been no obvious trauma trigger. Sometimes this uneasy feeling can be described as “an impending sense of doom” as though something bad is racing towards you and you are powerless to stop it from happening. You revert back to a childlike state and at its most extreme, you may not recognise your adult body.
Increase in Self Hate
If you grew up in a household with frightening and harsh authority figures, your inner voice may start to become much more critical and hateful. You may start to replay all your most shameful moments in your head and all the insults you have ever received. During a flashback, you only see the ‘bad’ or ‘humiliating’ parts of yourself and you forget about all the goodness within you. This leads to a sudden paranoia that other people can only see your ‘bad’ parts too – and you start to worry about being judged or hated by others.
Complete Emotional Dysregulation
A core feature of a flashback is a dysregulated emotional response. You may react furiously to spilling your cup of coffee, and see it as evidence of how worthless and disgusting you are. Flashbacks can feel timeless so your rage over spilling coffee could last for hours. On the other hand, a significant event or emergency may leave you feeling empty or disconnected. Your emotional responses can become unpredictable, explosive and scary while you are flashing back to earlier traumas.
Need to Flee
An emotional flashback can be accompanied by the urgent need to escape whatever situation you are in. This can happen even when you are in a place where you feel safe and secure because you are flashing back to a time when life felt dangerous. During an emotional flashback, you may find it hard to trust the people around you and start to unconsciously search for signs of betrayal.
Emotional flashbacks may feel endlessly scary but the good news is that they can be managed using a variety of techniques. The first step is to identify that you are in an emotional flashback. If you are concerned that you may be experiencing emotional flashbacks, bookmark this page so you can come back to it and see what resonates for you.