Emotional flashbacks — from the inside out

Olivia L.D
Nov 7, 2017 · 5 min read

Emotional flashbacks are, in my opinion, the most horrible and unimaginably unbearable part of complex PTSD. How can words even begin to explain to someone who hasn’t experience complex trauma just how terrifying and distressing they are. They are occurring more and more often lately, and I’m going to try and use my words in the hope that it can make this experience any less alienating right now.

Everyone seems to be able to understand visual flashbacks. There is usually an identifiable trigger and you’re instantly taken back to the physical environment of the traumatic event. Sounds, smells, visions and what not are re-experienced. The event is re-experienced, physically.

With emotional flashbacks the concept is similar, yet the event(s) are re-experience psychologically. They are more common in individuals with Complex PTSD as oppose to regular PTSD. Complex PTSD develops as a result of prolonged and inescapable trauma, often occurring at a developmentally significant time ie childhood. When emotional flashbacks occur it literally feels like you’ve been triggered back to the age in which some of the trauma occurred. You’re triggered back to a psychological state, rather than a physical event. The triggers are sometimes identifiable yet the links to the emotional state may be difficult to understand. Often however, or for me at least, the triggers are completely unidentifiable.

Something will hit a nerve or a point of utter vulnerability and it’s like something inside me snaps, it exceeds my already limited ability to cope and my adult brain simply shuts down. Sometimes it is this immediate; sometimes it happens over the space of hours until my façade simply cannot be maintained any longer. It feels like my brain regresses to the psychological state of a vulnerable, terrified child. I do not feel safe. I cannot explain why I don’t feel safe, I am just convinced I am not safe and I’m terrified.

I begin to panic because the fear and distress feels, plainly put, unbearable and I fear this time, I will not survive it. It amazes me every time I do survive one how the human body can physically withstand that much distress and emotional pain without disintegrating from the inside out, yet I survived years of this distress all the while managing to hide it from every single person in my life. The majority of that was due to dissociation, however the more I process things, the more “able” my minds seems to feel to endure the feelings. I beg to differ.

I felt the need to write this out because right at this very moment, it feels unbearable and I am scared. The point of writing this out also isn’t logical as I know this wont be read by anyone but even just writing the experience out on paper can help ease the distress. Maybe the best way to convey what an emotional flashback is like is by explaining exactly what is going on right now in my mind and in my body.

I am scared. Really scared. The distress feels so overpowering I feel out of control of myself. I can’t tone it down. I can’t calm myself. I can’t soothe myself. It really physically hurts it my chest, it feels like it’s burning. My mind is going a million miles an hour trying to come up with solutions as to how to just make everything stop. I feel intensely alone, like unbearably alone, like there is no one on Earth who loves me enough to sit through something like this with me. The professionals I normally turn to are all on leave, again. It feels like friends would never be able to understand and I don’t feel worthy enough to put people I care about through something like this. And my family simply do not want to know. It leaves me alone in it, and that is only fuel to the fire of this emotional flashback because alone is all I ever was when I was little and trying to survive what was happening to me. I know none of this seems logical, but try explaining that to an 8 year old child who is simply terrified, doesn’t trust anyone and doesn’t even understand what is happening. I just want my mum. I really really need her right now and whilst I know this flashback will end and I know the intensity of these feelings cannot possibly last forever, right now I don’t care because I need it to stop, NOW. Then there is the other part of me, the part that’s screaming at me that I’m twenty four years old and need to grow the fuck up. Emotional flashbacks are not logical. And psychologically, right now I am the furthest thing from an independent, strong, capable twenty-four year old.

That’s the horrible thing about any form of trauma, it technically ends but realistically it is relived over and over and over, not just physically and visually but psychologically. It never ends. Right now I feel like I cannot take anymore of this and I know I have felt like this a thousand times before but I feel like nothing more than this. I feel like this is all there is to me, I feel like damaged goods who is not worthy of living. I feel too far gone and whilst I have people convincing me I am worth the pain of healing I’m honestly not to sure I believe it. And even if I am, who could ever love something so damaged.

This has not made me stronger. Right now I am not grateful for who my childhood has turned me into. I am not grateful for the fact that I even survived it. Right now I’m not grateful for anything and I wish I hadn’t as the suffering never ends. The things my body and mind resorted to in a desperate attempt to physically and psychologically survive what was happening have come at a huge cost, costs that most people would never be able to even comprehend and tonight I’m honestly debating if life is worth those costs. Tonight it doesn’t feel like it, yet tomorrow when this flashback has passed and the beauty of living again engulfs me it’s a cost I’d be willing to pay a thousand times over.

This is the complete paradox adult survivors of complex trauma occurring in childhood experience.

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