Emotional flashbacks are something that many of us experience, whether we are aware of this or not. When you get caught in an emotional flashback, an intense emotional imprint that trauma has encoded deep within your psyche becomes activated. You feel the same strong emotions that you did in the past all over again. When triggered into an emotional flashback, these intense feelings may be out of proportion to the current situation. However, there is hope, because you can learn to use these emotional flashbacks as opportunities to heal your inner child.
Emotional Triggers and Emotional Flashbacks
In his book “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving,” author and therapist Pete Walker teaches that emotional triggers can cause “emotional flashbacks.” Similar to PTSD flashbacks, emotional flashbacks bring up a strong re-experiencing of past hurts in the present moment. Emotional flashbacks may not be accompanied by a specific memory. Therefore, they can be confusing.
You don’t need to have diagnosable PTSD or Complex PTSD to experience emotional flashbacks. You need only to have had a traumatic event happen to you at some point in your life that felt overwhelming, like “too much,” or after which you had no one to turn to. Emotional flashbacks can be related to things we typically think of as traumatic, such as abuse or violence. They can also be related to seemingly “less intense” experiences, such as being bullied, treated poorly by a teacher, or having a critical parent.
Regardless of whether these experiences fit the "typical" description of trauma, they can still leave a strong imprint. Trauma is defined by the impact it has on you, not by other people's opinions. The bottom line is that your suffering matters. And if it hurts, it deserves healing.
At this point you may be wondering, “how do I know if I am triggered and having an emotional flashback?” The simple answer is that you are having an intense emotional experience that is out of proportion to the present moment situation.
For example, a partner breaks up with you and it brings up the same abandonment and worthiness wounds that you experienced when your parent walked out on you when you were a child. This makes what would normally have been a painful breakup completely unbearable.
Another example is that a friend forgets to text you back, and you think that they’re rejecting you which sends you into a tailspin of despair, when really, they forgot to respond. Or how about this: you miss an important deadline and you are terrified that your boss will humiliate and fire you, which causes a panic attack. Later, when you tell your boss that you missed the deadline, your boss says "oh, that's totally fine. Feel free to get it to me early next week instead!"
It can be difficult to determine whether something is proportionate to the situation. In fact, strong emotions can also happen because something is genuinely wrong. For example, sometimes your “sixth sense” will perk up when you’re around someone who seems a little "off" which can be genuinely helpful if it helps you avert danger. Or, you may become angry when someone disregards your boundaries several times. Not every strong emotion is coming from an emotional flashback, and strong emotions can be genuinely helpful if they help you take care of yourself.
Sometimes your emotions are giving you good feedback about the present moment situation, AND you can be caught in an emotional flashback at the same time, making things extra confusing! For example, your parents were critical of you and your current partner is constantly critical of you, too. The emotions you feel when your partner criticizes you may be stronger than someone who hadn't been criticized in childhood would be. But it's also normal to have an emotional reaction to constant criticism. Your feelings can guide you to stand up for yourself and seek respect in your relationships, AND, at the very same time, you may benefit from some deeper healing in this area.
Unfortunately, I see a lot of people struggle with either:
A. assuming all of their emotions are coming from unresolved trauma and therefore gaslight themselves into not listening to their inner messages (in the example above, assuming you need to work on your childhood trauma of being criticized without recognizing that you also deserve respect from your partner in the present), or the opposite,
B. never doing any self-reflection and assuming every strong emotion they feel is always justified.
As with most things, the truth is often somewhere in the middle, and therapy can help you sort this out.
The Importance of Therapy for Healing Emotional Flashbacks
As stated above, emotions can arise from:
Feelings about the present moment situation
The resurfacing of past traumas (emotional flashbacks)
A combination of the above
It can be confusing to understand where your emotions are coming from, what they are telling you, whether to take them at face value, and whether you could benefit from some trauma work. Therapy can help you discern where your emotions are coming from so you can reduce confusion and gain clarity.
Depth Hypnosis and Internal Family Systems are helpful tools for this. Both help you heal and transform emotional flashbacks, and make clearer sense of your emotions. Therapy is a first step that many people need before they feel confident working with their emotions on their own. Therapy can help you gain insight into where your emotions are coming from, and begin the process of healing your inner child with professional help.
However, the process of healing emotional flashbacks takes time, and I think it’s important to empower people to work with their inner child on their own. This is why I will walk you through this below.
How To Reparent Yourself Through Emotional Flashbacks
Now, I will outline how to move through emotional flashbacks by reparenting yourself. Many of us have specific triggers that send us into an emotional tailspin. So if this happens to you, it's okay! It's very common and nothing to be ashamed of. Treating yourself with compassion is important as you begin to work through your emotional flashbacks.
The first step is to recognize what your triggers are. For example, “when it seems like others are rejecting me, I tend to feel deeply isolated, lost, and unworthy.” Identifying triggers helps you know when you are in an emotional flashback more easily and automatically, which prevents you from getting "stuck" in the emotions and spiraling. Making a list of these triggers also helps create "trailheads" that we can work on together in therapy.
If you feel confident that the emotions are coming from a younger version of yourself, then the next step is to recognize this. You may be able to identify where these flashbacks are coming from rather easily. For example, you may have strong rejection fears, and you remember that this started when you were bullied in elementary school. Or you may feel profound loneliness when you're by yourself because you were an only child who was left alone a lot. Alternatively, you may not be able to identify an exact cause. Regardless, it can be helpful to imagine that these feelings are coming from a younger version of yourself.
The next step is to see the trigger as an opportunity for you to heal by being the person you needed when you were a kid. This is commonly called “reparenting your inner child.” You may prefer to see yourself as the parent of your younger self, or you may prefer to see yourself as an older sibling or mentor. Regardless, the most important thing about “reparenting” is to provide your younger self with what they needed and give them an emotionally corrective experience that will help them heal.
Lastly, speak to your inner child from your Core Self (if you're familiar with Internal Family Systems) or from your most compassionate adult self. You can do this by journaling back and forth with your inner child, having them first write how they feel and then write a response. You could also close your eyes and bring up an image of your inner child and speak with them. Another option is to talk out loud to and from your inner child. I get that this last one may seem a little silly, but if it works, why not try it!
Many people are afraid that reparenting is about parent-blaming. But reparenting is first and foremost about meeting your own needs, not assigning blame to others. Reparenting is about identifying a wound or unmet need, and stepping in as your adult self to repair that unmet need or wound. It is about your own healing and building a strong relationship with yourself so you can improve your life now. (However, if you feel blame towards your parents or others, this is something therapy can help you process!)
Steps of Reparenting Yourself When You’re Having an Emotional Flashback
Identify your emotional flashbacks in advance to be prepared if you get triggered. I recommend making a list. You can expand upon this list over time as you become more self-aware.
Identify when you’re triggered and having an emotional flashback in the moment. Pause and take a few deep breaths.
Notice how you feel. For example, “I feel rejected right now which is bringing up feelings of isolation and unworthiness.”
Recognize that this may be coming from a younger version of you. For example, “I am feeling rejected right now. I know that I have wounds around this. This is coming from elementary school me, who was bullied”
Talk to the younger you from your compassionate adult self or your Core Self. Reparent or mentor your younger self through the present situation. You can do this through journaling, speaking out loud, or visualizing.
Example Dialogue Between A Younger Self and Core Self
Below is an example dialogue between an inner child and core self. Your own dialogue with your inner child may or may not have similarities to this. Only you know what your inner child needs. Common themes that may be reflected in your own inner dialogue are compassion, curiosity, genuine listening, clarity, and perspective.
Younger Self: She didn't text me back. I think she's rejecting me, just like everyone else has. This always happens. I'm afraid no one will ever care about me. I always get left, and then I end up alone with no one to talk to. I feel like crying.
Core Self: Rejection is very painful. It’s okay to be sad and cry about this. I can hold you while you cry.
Younger Self: *Begins to cry*
Core Self: *Gives her younger self a hug*
Younger Self: Everyone always leaves me, so there must be something wrong with me. My own dad left me. It must be because I'm the problem. I'm worthless.
Core Self: I'm sorry that so many people have left you, especially your dad. That's very painful. It makes sense that you feel the way you do.
Younger Self: *Visibly softens" thank you. Why do they always leave?
Core Self: Well, since I've grown up, I've learned that dad had his own struggles that he didn't know how to handle. It wasn't about you. How other people act towards you often has more to do with what they're going through than it does with you. You are absolutely worthy. Other people's actions will never take away from your worth. It's not your fault that he left.
Younger Self: Really? I thought it was all my fault.
Core Self: It's not all your fault, I promise.
Younger Self: *Visibly softens even more* Okay. Thank you. I've never had anyone help me with this.
Core Self: You're right. Your dad left and your mom was so busy with work, so you didn't have anyone to process your feelings with. I'm sorry that no one was ever there for you to help you make sense of these things. I'm here with you now.
Younger Self: Thank you!!
Core Self: I wonder why your friend didn't text you back. Maybe there are other reasons besides rejection why she didn't?
Younger Self: I didn't think of that. Like what?
Core Self: Maybe she is busy and has a lot going on. Do you remember she said she was busy with work? And that she has been struggling with her chronic illness?
Younger Self: I forgot.
Core Self: If you want, I can text her again and we can see. I will also ask her how she's doing with all the stress she's been under.
Younger Self: I would like that, but I'm scared.
Core Self: How about I be the one to handle it? I can be the one to text her for you.
Younger Self: Yes! Thank you!
Core Self: And whatever happens, know that I'll always be here when you need me and I will never forget how worthy you are.
Notes For Safe Practice
Before attempting this exercise, please reflect on whether this feels doable for you, or if it might feel like too much. For some people, doing this alone may feel overwhelming, at least to start. If you don’t feel comfortable leading yourself through this process just yet, that is understandable. Working with a trusted therapist can help you learn how to do this for yourself in therapy sessions, which can empower you to do it outside of sessions, too. This is one of the things I help people do. If you’re interested in booking a consult, you can request one here.
But if you think this practice will be helpful for you in this stage of your healing, I hope it helps! Please keep in mind that since I am offering this information in a blog post, you will need to decide on your own whether you can engage safely in this exercise, and must take full and sole responsibility for your experiences. Please also recognize that this practice is not medical advice or therapy.
Lastly, if you're in therapy with me, I strongly recommend writing down your triggers and strong feeling reactions somewhere where you can easily access them. These are "trailheads" for deeper work that we can use to help you heal more deeply together, so please feel free to bring this list to therapy! This will reduce emotional flashbacks overall.
Thanks for reading! I hope this blog post helped you. Also, if you want to read Pete Walker's notes on caring for your inner child, you can read a list here.