The Flashbacks You Can't See
I sat in the kitchen, watching television, just like any other day. Suddenly, I started crying. My body started to shake. I couldn't stop the tears from falling. It felt as if someone had ripped my heart out of my chest, as if I had lost my best friend. But none of that happened. I was just watching television. My friend asked me what was wrong, but I couldn't tell her. While I admit my go-to answer is "I don't know", this time I was telling the truth. I didn't know why I felt the sadness.
A few weeks later, I was sitting in group therapy, the same as I had been doing every weekday for the three months prior. Just as it came my turn to speak, I started to panic. I could feel my chest tightening. I felt like I couldn't breathe. I was afraid, but I didn't know away. I fought the urge to run and hide. All I could do was cry. The therapist asked me what was wrong, but I couldn't tell her. I didn't know why I was scared. I didn't know why I was frozen in fear.
It wasn't until later that I realized what I had been experiencing. They were flashbacks. But not the usual flashbacks you hear about when people talk about PTSD. These were emotional flashbacks.
PTSD Flashbacks Come in Different Forms
As someone who dealt with PTSD for years, I had never really learned about emotional flashbacks. Everyone always talks about the typical visual flashbacks, when a trigger causes you to experience bits and pieces of your trauma all over again. Your body stays in the present, but your mind makes you feel like you're right back in the past. You're existing in two worlds at the very same time.
I've had plenty of those kinds of flashbacks, but these flashbacks weren't like that. My mind still felt like it was in the present. I wasn't flashing back to any trauma. I wasn't experiencing any bad memories. I was just there, in the present, feeling emotions that didn't make any sense.
Trauma's Effect on Emotional Processing in the Brain
For people with PTSD and Complex PTSD, emotional responses aren't so simple. The amygdala, the part of the brain involved in emotions, increases when people experience significant trauma. When someone experiences consistent trauma, the amygdala goes into overdrive, storing the emotional memories in the brain, as the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in storing and associating memories, slows down. While people who have not experienced trauma can form connections between memories and emotions, those who have PTSD cannot; the process is disrupted, causing a disconnect between emotions and memories. This disconnect is what contributes to emotional flashbacks.
The Lasting Effects of Emotional Flashbacks
Emotional flashbacks can be just as debilitating, if not more so, than other types of flashbacks. The difficult part about these flashbacks is that they often come on without warning. There are triggers, but it's difficult to figure out just what those triggers are, especially since there's no co-occurring memory. The overwhelming emotions leave the person confused. Instead of reaching out for help, many isolate, unable to explain to others or themselves why they are feeling the way they are.
These emotional flashbacks left me frustrated and ashamed. Frustrated because I didn't understand what was going on, and ashamed because I felt like I was having the feelings for no legitimate reason. Instead of others invalidating me as they had in the past, I was the one invalidating myself. And, as experience has very clearly shown me, self-invalidation can set recovery back even further.
I'm a very logical person – it helps me tremendously in my field (experimental psychology), but not so much in managing my PTSD. I still don't know what caused that first emotional flashback. I still can't understand why I can't just override my brain's connection between a certain date and the feeling of fear. I still look for proof to validate my emotions when I can't seem to find a reason for the tears. It's taking me quite a bit of time to accept that I won't always understand what's happening inside my brain, that I won't always know what triggers my PTSD, and that my symptoms won't always be obvious.
Not every experience can be understood. Not every emotion can be put into words. Not every flashback can be seen.
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