C-PTSD: How To Stop An Emotional Flashback in 13 steps
Complex trauma generally shows up in the form of emotional flashbacks- these flashbacks typically present themselves as one of the 4 "F" types. If you haven't already, you can learn more about those here. Let's talk more about what these are and how to work through them.
PTSD vs C-PTSD: What is an emotional flashback?
Emotional flashbacks are hard for a few different reasons. First, they aren't the traditional flashback that most people think of when they hear "PTSD". The typical PTSD flashback consists of reliving the past in a way that draws in one or many of the 5 senses. An example of this is a soldier who returns from a war with PTSD and hears fireworks on the Fourth of July. Although they are consciously aware that these are fireworks and that they are in no danger- subconsciously, their amygdala is pulling the fire alarm and telling them they are back in the war where bombs are going off around them. PTSD flashbacks are usually associated with an individual traumatic event and have a clear association.
So, how is an emotional flashback different? C-PTSD is a form of complex trauma that arises from ongoing traumatic events, typically emotional abuse- whether from caregivers in childhood or in adult abusive relationships. So when we have C-PTSD and we "flash back", we are flashing back to an emotional memory. This is confusing because it's not nearly as obvious as a PTSD flashback. The process of an emotional flashback is one that is subtle that it can be hard to miss. An example of this is feeling like your partner is ignoring you, or not wanting to spend time with you. This may cause you to engage in behaviors that are in line with what your F-type is (Flight, Fight, Fawn, Freeze) all the while feeling like you are justified in your behavior because your partner "x, y, z"... This particular example likely involves a person who was emotionally neglected in childhood, or had an alcoholic or drug addicted parent. C-PTSD flashbacks do not have one clear association and are usually from a string of traumas or an attachment trauma.
Complex trauma is.. well, complex. If you had a toxic or narcissistic parent for example, it is very likely that your adult relationships oftentimes, if not, all the time trigger flashbacks for you. It is extremely likely that you are not even able to consciously remember what the "origin" memory is, especially since it is more of a collection of emotionally traumatic memories, and, could even be entirely based on the nature of the dysfunctional relationship. These are not obvious flashbacks, like a reaction to a car accident, or house fire, or violent assault. This is why some individuals can become "stuck" in a flashback without realizing it, and think they are just having social/relationship problems, addictions, eating disorders, anxiety/depression, overachieving, low self-esteem, etc.
13 Steps to Stopping an Emotional Flashback
These are taken from Pete Walker's (2013) book, C-PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. He is the author who coined the 4 F-types, and these steps are ones that I like to reference as a "go-to" when an emotional flashback hits. I suggest printing these out and keeping them in handy places if you are having a particularly difficult time.
1. Tell yourself that you are having a flashback right now.
2. Remind yourself that you are not in danger right now and that you are safe.
3. Remind yourself you have the right to have boundaries and not allow anyone to hurt you.
4. Reassure your inner child. Let them know you are a safe person to come to for support, comfort, and protection.
5. Stop yourself with fatalistic thinking "I'm going to feel this way forever". You are not. Even if you don't believe it right now, this flashback will pass. You will feel better.
6. Remind yourself that you are now an adult with the resources and skills needed to be okay and take care of yourself.
7. Get back in your body. Numbing out is common in emotional flashbacks.
A. Ask your body to relax (progressive muscle relaxation is great here)
B. Do some deep breathing
C. Slow down
D. Find a safe space to soothe yourself: wrap yourself in a blanket, lie down in a closet, take a bath, take a nap.
E. Feel your emotions without reacting to them. They will pass.
8. Recognize your inner-critic and put a stop to those inner thoughts. Say "NO" and substitute these negative thoughts with positive ones.
9. Allow yourself to grieve. View this as an opportunity to release old feelings of fear, hurt, abandonment and then to soothe your inner child to encourage healing. This can turn your pain into self-protection.
10. Create a safe support system. Do not isolate yourself.
11. Learn what your triggers are. Avoid them, and when you can't avoid them, work through them with these steps.
12. Figure out what you are flashing back to. This is an opportunity to learn about yourself and heal what needs to be healed.
13. Be patient. It is a long journey, and that's okay. This is likely going to be a two step forward, one step back process. Don't beat yourself up for having a bad day or a flashback.
What Else To Consider in Your Recovery Process
Rather than being "quick fixes" for specific moments of emotional flashback, these are longer-term lifestyle changes that can help in addition to those mentioned above.
1. Journal often. You will learn so much about yourself.
2. Go to therapy. You will learn so much about yourself here too. Also, bring your journal.
3. Go outside. We are beings of nature. Dress for the weather, and get out there. I recommend trying a 1,000 hours outside challenge. https://www.1000hoursoutside.com/
4. Prioritize your physical health. Diet, exercise, sleep, etc. These all will directly impact your mental health and vice versa. You will be more susceptible to flashbacks if you are not taking care of these areas.
5. Find an outlet for your pain (especially if journaling is not your thing)- art, music, connecting with others.
What If I'm Still Being Abused?
Then you are not experiencing an emotional flashback, you are experiencing a normal reaction to being abused. An emotional flashback is a response to a trigger that is tied to a past memory, it is not a reaction to something that is happening in the present moment that does not have a separate trigger.
It's really important to note that working through your complex trauma is nearly impossible while you are still being mistreated by your abuser. As long as this continues to happen, you will not be able to heal. If you are currently being abused, please seek help in order to gain the strength and insight needed to leave your current situation, or, to set better boundaries with toxic family members.
Walker, P. (2013). Complex PTSD: From surviving to thriving.
At Root Counseling, all of our therapists conduct therapy from an attachment-based lens and help clients work through their trauma type to develop healthy responses to triggers. If you're interested in setting up an appointment, you can visit our therapists here.