Emotional flashbacks are intense emotional states activated by past trauma (e.g., fear, shame, or feeling unsafe). We look at effective ways to recognize and cope with them.
Do you experience intense waves of emotion that seem excessive based on the current situation? When this happens, do you feel like you’re reliving a stressful or traumatic event? You might be having emotional flashbacks.
Knowing the signs and symptoms of emotional flashbacks — and learning what to do when they arise — can help you move toward healing.
It’s important to note that while many mental health professionals find it useful to talk about emotional flashbacks in their practice, very little research has looked into whether they are a genuine phenomenon, their causes, and how to best manage them.
Emotional flashbacks describe the experience of being reminded of past trauma and your body responding by replicating the emotions you felt during the trauma.
The symptoms of emotional flashbacks can include the following feelings:
- feeling unsafe
- feeling like the worst is about to happen
Emotional flashbacks may be hard to recognize. They can happen suddenly and it can be hard to pinpoint what caused them.
Unlike other forms of trauma-related flashbacks, emotional flashbacks are not typically visual or auditory. This means they can be harder to detect, and you may not know that what you’re experiencing is an emotional flashback. You might blame yourself for these feelings or think that you’re overwhelmed or emotionally dysregulated for another reason.
Emotional flashbacks may be linked with trauma-related mental health conditions, including:
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD)
- borderline personality disorder (BPD)
If you feel certain memories are intrusive and you find yourself avoiding situations because of your symptoms, it may help to talk with a doctor or mental health professional.
Examples of emotional flashbacks
If your parents or caregivers neglected to meet your basic needs as a child, such as providing regular meals, you might experience emotional flashbacks as an adult when you’re running low on money or food. This can result in extreme waves of emotions where you respond mentally as though you were a child again.
Another example is receiving criticism. If a parent, sibling, or another person was overly critical of you as a child, then you might become emotionally overwhelmed when receiving feedback as an adult. It may make you feel unsafe and mistrustful.
The factors that activate an emotional flashback will be different for each person depending on their individual experiences and their past trauma. Anything that reminds you of past trauma — such as abuse, neglect, or an accident — could cause an emotional flashback.
An individual’s trauma triggers could include specific:
An emotional flashback is not the same as a panic attack. However, both involve sudden, intense emotions — and an emotional flashback could cause a panic attack — and so it may not be possible to tell the difference between the two.
Panic attacks can occur without a history of trauma and they may have no identifiable cause. Emotional flashbacks take you mentally back to trauma or stress from your past.
if you’re not sure whether you are experiencing an emotional flashback or a panic attack, a mental health professional may be able to help you work through the feelings and determine the cause.
Both emotional flashbacks and panic attacks can occur as part of PTSD and CPTSD.
The first step to dealing with an emotional flashback is recognizing that you’re having one. When you have this awareness, you can take steps to overcome it.
1. Listen to yourself and self-soothe
Pete Walker, MFT, a mental health professional who has written extensively about emotional flashbacks, offers several steps to help you through an emotional flashback. The steps include:
- Tell yourself, “I am having a flashback.”
- Remind yourself that you are safe in the present day and that the danger you’re feeling is based on a situation that is no longer happening. You might consider using a flashback halting protocol to help with this process.
- Remember that you can leave your current situation if you want or need to.
- Reassure your inner child that you love them and are looking after them.
- Take slow, deep breaths to regulate your body.
- Find a safe place where you can soothe and comfort yourself. You might wrap yourself in a blanket, take a nap, or have a warm bath.
- Be patient with yourself. Healing from trauma can be a lengthy process and it takes time.
Learning to identify emotional flashbacks can help you recognize them and take steps to overcome them. It can be challenging to work out what activates your trauma responses. It’s best to work with a trauma-trained therapist who can help you identify and overcome these states in a safe and supportive way.
2. Practice grounding
Grounding exercises are often effective for bringing yourself back to the present moment. These exercises can help you remember that you’re safe in the present moment and that the traumatic events are no longer happening.
Some ways to practice grounding include:
- The 5-4-3-2-1 technique. State 5 things you see, 4 things you can feel, 3 things you can touch, 2 things you can smell, and 1 thing you can taste.
- Progressive muscle relaxation. This involves tensing and releasing muscle groups to help you bring awareness to your body and reduce stress and tension.
- Movement exercises. Regular yoga, dance, or other physical activity may help you connect with your body.
3. Seek support
Emotional flashbacks are intense and can feel isolating, so being able to lean on a support system can help you cope.
Research from 2017 reported that online self-help support groups could help people with CPTSD to understand, validate, and accept their mental health difficulties.
The participants were able to form meaningful interactions with others who had similar experiences and learn more about coping with symptoms in an informal setting.
It may also be helpful to learn more about emotional flashbacks from a mental health professional trained in treating trauma.
Emotional flashbacks take you back to a time of persistent trauma or stress. They involve intense emotions that may seem to come from nowhere.
What activates an emotional flashback differs between people. Whatever the causes, mental health professionals have identified various ways to cope with them. Recognizing what you’re experiencing and learning your triggers — ideally with the support of a mental health professional — is a good place to start.
If you experience feelings such as guilt, shame, or fear and deal with emotional flashbacks, support is available. You may consider visiting these organizations for additional resources, education, and support: