While PTSD Flashbacks tend to get attention in books and media, many trauma survivors experience something called emotional flashbacks. Flashbacks flood brains with images, physical sensations, and a sense of re-living a trauma, but emotional flashbacks show up in the form of strong waves of emotions.
Often, a clue that a big wave of emotion is an emotional flashback is when the emotion seems disconnected from present experience, and instead a feeling associated with a past trauma.
In this article, you’ll learn:
- What emotional flashbacks are
- How emotional flashbacks are distinct from panic attacks.
- Research based strategies to navigate this type of flashback and reduce frequency.
What Are Emotional Flashbacks?
Emotional flashbacks are experiences of strong emotions that often come in waves and are brought on by a triggering event.
One common theme that people who have this type of flashbacks describe is that they sort of emotionally “fling” us into an emotional experience totally mismatched to our present experience.
Example of an Emotional Flashback:
At a performance review at work, Brooklyn’s boss praises her strengths and offers kind feedback on areas where she could improve. Instead of feeling a little discouraged (normal after any experience where we get critical feedback), Brooklyn returns to her desk with her hands trembling, adrenaline-pumping, and her mind flooded with sheer terror.
Brooklyn’s response isn’t really about her interaction with her boss, instead, she’s having the emotional experience of what it was like to get in trouble when she was growing up in an abusive home.
Similar to what many understand as a “flashback,” emotional flashbacks bring to life feeling-states we experienced during trauma, often experienced in childhood.
Emotional flashbacks are different than flashbacks, because they are emotional, not visual, and are often difficult to identify. While flashbacks often have vibrant memories attached to them, emotional flashbacks, which trigger specific physiological, mental, or emotional responses, happen on an emotional level. In the example above, Brooklyn’s coworkers might think she’s just bad at taking criticism, and Brooklyn herself might never make the connection that her response was trauma-based.
Emotional flashbacks are a common symptom of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). These types of flashbacks are a result of the prolonged and/or complex trauma behind CPTSD – while flashbacks related to PTSD are more often tied to a specific instance of trauma 1
Emotional Flashback vs. Panic Attack
While somewhat similar (✅ overwhelming emotion, ✅ unpleasant physical responses, or ✅ distressing thoughts), emotional flashbacks and panic attacks are not the same thing.
A major difference between emotional flashbacks and panic attacks is the origin of the response: Emotional flashbacks are rooted in a traumatic past event. Panic attacks are caused in response to extreme stress or anxiety in the present experience.
A bit like a square can be a rectangle, but a rectangle can’t be a square: emotional flashbacks can lead to panic attacks, but panic attacks are not necessarily emotional flashbacks.
Emotional flashbacks are manifestations of the past in the current moment – They involve emotionally reliving a traumatic memory. Panic attacks can include these same responses, but are triggered – consciously or subconsciously – in the current moment. Panic attacks and emotional flashbacks are each valid, but the terms cannot be used interchangeably.
- Always trauma-based
- A “re-living” of an experience that occurred in the past.
- Not always aware that the emotional flashback is happening.
- To navigate: Recovering from an emotional flashback often involves mindfulness, grounding in the present-day, and seeking support.
- May or may not be trauma-based
- A response to overwhelming/triggering stimuli in the present.
- Usually aware that the panic attack is happening, even if not consciously aware of what triggered it
- To navigate: Recovering from a panic attack often involves reducing stimuli (like taking a moment in a quiet room), practicing calming exercises, and seeking support.
Experiencing A Flashback
Emotional flashbacks may surface as a variety of emotional or even physical feelings. Especially in instances of complex trauma, this type of flashbacks can even manifest as feelings of pain (that often relate to the pain felt during the traumatic experience) 2.
For people who have experienced complex trauma, emotional flashbacks are a very real and often debilitating experience. These flashbacks can be triggered by a variety of things, including:
- a particular smell,
- a sound,
- a certain sight
- words or phrases, etc
It is not uncommon for individuals to experience emotional flashbacks in the form of intrusive thoughts (i.e., unwanted thoughts about the underlying traumatic event). At other times, people may feel as if they are reliving the experience emotionally, as if it is happening again in the present moment. It is not uncommon for people to avoid certain places or activities that they associate with flashbacks or emotional flashbacks.
Emotional flashbacks are often accompanied by physical symptoms, such as a racing heart, sweating, and feeling nauseous. In some cases, the this type of flashback may be so intense that it leads to a panic attack.
Often, it may not be obvious that the emotion is actually an emotional flashback. Like Brooklyn, sometimes the only clue that we’re having an emotional flashback is noticing that the response doesn’t seem to match the situation 3.
While emotional flashbacks can be scary and overwhelming, it is important to remember that they are a normal reaction to trauma. If you are experiencing emotional flashbacks, you are not alone. There are many people who have been through similar experiences. There are also many resources available to help you cope with these and other symptoms of PTSD.
Download a PDF of this Illustration
How to Navigate Emotional Flashbacks
Emotional flashbacks can be extremely overwhelming and can make it difficult to function in everyday life. If you’re struggling with emotional flashbacks, it’s important to seek professional help.
One option for addressing these flashbacks is through therapy, specifically trauma therapy. Therapists can help people understand their emotional flashback triggers and process the emotions they bring up. You can find more information on trauma therapy here: Printable Resources on Trauma & PTSD.
Building Skills to Reduce Emotional Flashbacks
Finding ways to manage emotional flashbacks is key to healthy coping in everyday life.
Pete Walker, who has done extensive research and writing on emotional flashbacks and CPTSD, suggests a 13-step process for managing emotional flashbacks. Through these steps, people can learn: to acknowledge that a flashback is happening, to reassure yourself that you are safe, to ground and connect with your body, and to work toward understanding the trigger(s).
Emotional flashbacks are a common experience for many PTSD (and especially C-PTSD) survivors. These often unknowingly throw us back into a past trauma through experiences of strong – and sometimes unexplainable – emotions. While all types of trauma flashbacks can be disruptive and dysregulating, they can be managed with coping skills and through professional help so that we can enjoy and navigate everyday life.
This illustration is on a light pink background. There are two people drawn in the center displaying the difference between flashbacks and emotional flashbacks.
The person on the left has pale skin, short black hair that is straight, a sleeveless and white-collared pink shirt with a floral design, and has a blank look on their face. Below this person is written, “What FLASHBACKS often feel like.” Above this person is a thought bubble that reads, “Can include: loss of time, emotions, images thoughts, sounds, sensations, loss of sense of space, tastes, pain, film reel.”
The person on the right has a dark skin tone, short brown hair that has texture to it, a sleeveless blue shirt with a geometric stripe design, and has their eyes closed with tears coming down their face. Below them is written, “What EMOTIONAL FLASHBACKS often feel like.” Above them is a thought bubble that reads, “Strong waves of emotion that may not seem like trauma.”
At the bottom of the illustration are the credits: “Visual conceptualization by @LindsayBraman. Concept of emotional flashbacks by Pete Walker, MFT.”
- Walker, P. (2009). Emotional Flashback Management in the Treatment of Complex PTSD. Psychotherapy.net. https://www.psychotherapy.net/article/complex-ptsd.
- Macdonald, B., Salomons, T.V, Meteyard, L. & Whalley, M.G. (2018) Prevalence of pain flashbacks in posttraumatic stress disorder arising from exposure to multiple traumas or childhood traumatization. Canadian Journal of Pain, 2(1), 48-56,DOI: 10.1080/24740527.2018.1435994
- Stadtmann, M.P., Maercker, A., Binder, J. et al. Why do I have to suffer? Symptom management, views and experiences of persons with a CPTSD: a grounded theory approach. BMC Psychiatry 18, 392 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12888-018-1971-9