What is an emotional flashback? Pete Walker describes it like this:
“Emotional flashbacks are sudden and often prolonged regressions (‘amygdala hijackings’) to the frightening circumstances of childhood. They are typically experienced as intense and confusing episodes of fear and/or despair – or as sorrowful and/or enraged reactions to this fear and despair. Emotional flashbacks are especially painful because the inner critic typically overlays them with toxic shame, inhibiting the individual from seeking comfort and support, isolating him in an overwhelming and humiliating sense of defectiveness.”
It’s kind of like being stuck in a dark tunnel. I can’t see who I am anymore, and I feel helpless and confused and stuck. All I can see is how broken and unworthy I am, and it’s like I can’t even access positive information about myself in this state. It’s just not there. The link to that information in my brain has been deactivated.
While I’m in the dark tunnel, I can’t think of things I can do to get back out, and often I don’t think I’m worthy of getting out of the dark tunnel. Everything feels hopeless and I feel worthless.
But I’ve trained myself to just do one thing when I feel like this: all I have to do is go into my journal and look at my page called “Read when feeling bad“. On that page I have various things that I need to be reminded of, things which I am not aware of when in the dark flashback tunnel. I highly recommend constructing such a page for yourself when you’re in a good space mentally, and putting it somewhere you can easily find it again when you’re in a flashback.
Here’s what I have on my “Read when feeling bad” page:
I have a link to Pete Walker’s flashback management guide:
Pete Walker has a nice guide for managing flashbacks here. In summary, the idea is to realize you’re having a flashback (this is the hardest part for me), and then to remind yourself that you’re safe right now, talk to and comfort your inner child, realize that you’re actually an adult now and that you have the power to leave situations that are bad for you. There are 13 steps in Pete’s guide and I highly recommend giving it a try.
Things I need to be reminded of:
- I keep a collection of nice things that people I care about have said about me, and when I feel like crap I can go read them, and it helps to remind me that I’m worthy of love.
- I have a list of accomplishments that I’m proud of. When I look at this, it reminds me that I’m competent.
Things I can DO:
This is a list of things that nearly always make me feel better when I do them. Yours will probably differ depending on your interests and hobbies, but you get the general idea.
- Get comfortable. Drink water, or something more interesting, have a snack. Either get warm or cool off depending on the weather. I might not be very aware of my physical needs when in flashback, so it helps to have a kind of a checklist I can look at to figure out what I might need in that moment. Here’s a nice interactive online self-care game that guides you through the process of figuring out what you might need: YouFeelLikeShit.com
- Being creative in some way helps: Create something. Anything at all. It doesn’t matter what it is, and it doesn’t have to be good. Draw or doodle something, just scribble some random stuff. Make nonsensical shapes. Doesn’t matter what it is.
- Play with my guitar. Like literally just pluck the strings and listen to the sound they make. Don’t try to make music or do anything hard.
- Do any kind of exercise: stretching, practicing some training, lifting some weights, pushups, anything to get the blood pumping a bit, and to get my brain into a different mode of operation.
- Go skate, or watch skate videos. Going skating might be too much effort, but just putting on a skate video is like ASMR to me, and makes me feel better.
- Listen to one of my favourite podcasts, or a lesson from one of the many online workshops I’ve collected over the years.
- Go hug a cat.
- Go outside and look at the plants and birds. Sit on the grass, touch plants and trees.
- Listen to uplifting music and play a repetitive video game. Something easy that doesn’t require much skill or brain power. For example, I like racing games where I can do laps on the same track over and over without opponents getting in my way. I don’t really know why this works for me, but it seems to be some kind of meditation.
Over time, my flashbacks have become more subtle. They’re not really that intense anymore, and I’m also better at noticing my feelings in general.