A few days ago I had my most intense emotional flashback. Now, if you don’t know what is an emotional flashback or what it feels like, you’re not alone. For sure, I’ve read about them in my research on childhood trauma and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) but I haven’t experienced one. Or at least I didn’t know at the time.
An emotional flashback is an intense emotional reaction, many describe it as a sort of flooding of emotion, usually as a result of a trigger – an event, a situation, it could be something someone says, and how that makes you feel. Triggers could be many and they happen unexpectedly. What they bring is a feeling, an emotion of something that was traumatising for you in the past. More “interesting” is what happens to your brain and nervous system when you get triggered. In the simplest terms, your nervous system from a normal, steady mode goes into either fight/flight or freeze mode. These are survival responses wired in our most primal part of the brain a.k.a. the reptilian brain, or the brain stem. When presented with a threat our brains are wired to protect our bodies.
The thing about the emotional flashback, or any flashback, as a matter of fact, is that the brain doesn’t make a difference between past and present. This means that during an emotional flashback your brain simply thinks it’s under threat because of a situation that brings a feeling from the past. It doesn’t know that you’re actually OK and here in the present.
The emotional flooding is so intense I can hardly describe it with words but I can say that it took me two days to calm my nervous system down back to normal, and two more to actually figure out what I experienced and why I got so triggered. I’m writing on the sixth day after the emotional flashback and I’m still recovering – feeling physically exhausted and having a headache.
An emotional flashback is one of the symptoms that make Complex or Childhood PTSD different from PTSD (and there’s quite a difference between the origin of these two). I’ve never experienced anything so intense before but I’ve had similar experiences.
I believe the reason I had such an intense reaction is that I touched upon the most basic and primal human emotion – the fear of one’s death.
The triggering event is not so important but what it brought was a memory of me as a little child frozen with terror. A feeling so real and encompassing, a fear with your whole body and being, that you might not survive.
The words that came with the memory were the words of my mother: “In the same way I’ve created you, I can destroy you.”
I remember those words well but the difference is that this time I remembered the emotion too – the utter fear and terror from dying. And I not only remembered the emotion – I lived and felt it through again. Like I was that little girl over again and her mother was letting her know clearly and undoubtedly that she might destroy her if she wished so.
What became obvious to me that day was the fact that I have had an abusive mother and that I have symptoms of CPTSD. Since I’ve suppressed these memories and the emotions related to them, I’ve been doubting myself. I’ve been thinking that maybe she was just overcritical and somewhat cold and it was because I was too sensitive, that I was traumatised.
Well, no. I remembered it and I felt it. She did believe and mean the words she said to me. She did want me to know that she had complete and utter control over me and my life. And that is the definition of psychological abuse.
It’s taking me days to process all this and little by little I’m coming on the other side of it. In a way, it’s something I’ve always wanted to know. Now I don’t need to look into my past anymore – I got my answers. By any means, I don’t want to dwell on it and I want to focus my attention on learning tools and techniques to keep me here in the present.
What I’ve been telling myself like a mantra these past days is this:
You are safe now. You are no longer a little girl. You are under no threat anymore. You are not powerless and you have control over your life. You are not alone. There are people who care about you and who you can rely upon when you need. The world might be still big and a little scary but you are strong and wise and capable. You can do it. You can handle it. You have support. You are loved. You can protect yourself now.
I hope these serve you too. If you resonate with any of this, drop a line in the comments and let me know you’re on the same journey!0