Understanding Memory-Based Flashbacks and Emotional PTSD Flashbacks
Posttraumatic stress disorder flashbacks are like a memory, or part of a memory, that feels like it's happening right now. So if you have experienced trauma and have PTSD, you may have times when it feels like you are reliving the trauma. This can be very scary as the person having the flashback may not be able to connect with the present moment and feel like the trauma is happening in that present moment.
There are two types of flashbacks that people with PTSD often experience: (1) a memory-based flashback, and (2) an emotional flashback. Let's explore the characteristics of both types of flashbacks.
A typical memory-based flashback is characterized by a sudden onset re-experiencing of a traumatic event in your life. This might feel like you're visually seeing the unsettling event over and over in your mind, but it feels more intense than a typical memory. This type of flashback is experienced in the following ways:
- Seeing full or partial images of the traumatic event.
- Noticing sensory links to the trauma, such as hearing, smelling or tasting something.
- Feeling the physical symptoms that you experienced during the trauma, such as pain or physical pressure.
- Experiencing the emotions that happened during the trauma-- such as fear or even rage.
If you're having a memory-based PTSD flashback, you may re-experience the sights sounds and other sensations at the time of the traumatic experience, for example, the cold, uncomfortable feeling of the knife on your skin. Although you are feeling completely safe at the moment you experience the flashback, you don't feel safe. You are reliving all the feelings attached to the memory of being attacked — it feels like it's happening again.
An emotional flashback is an experience when complex traumatic emotional reactions "taken over." For example, feeling scared, abandoned or unsafe when you have a history of experiencing workplace assault. Rather than re-experiencing a specific traumatic event, an emotional flashback can last for hours, days, or sometimes weeks.
You experience an emotional flashback when a trigger in your environment reminds you of your past pain, suffering, and traumatic situation. An emotional flashback can happen as a delayed response to childhood abuse. When you were a child, you didn't have the power to defend and protect yourself. A large amount of repressed pain and unfairness is internalized. The adult thing to do would be to scream, stand up for yourself, defend yourself, and find someone to support you. However, when you are a child, you were not in a position to do so. All you could do as a child was to witness your physical, verbal, and emotional abuse. Your only option was to repress those feelings and keep going.
Emotional flashbacks from early childhood can be powerful. They can take you over and dominate your emotional state. You may have no idea that what you are feeling is an emotional memory. If you cannot remember the past events that caused these feelings (because they are repressed) the feelings naturally seem to belong in the present.
What Can You When Experiencing an Emotional Flashback?
- Recognize that when an emotion is too intense and too persistent to fit the current situation, you may be experiencing an emotional flashback of an experience from early childhood.
- Find a therapist, psychiatrist, counsellor, or social worker you can work with to begin to work through your emotions and past trauma.
- Tell the therapist in detail what triggered the emotional flashback and gain the support you need to work through your PTSD in a safe environment.