Flashback! Again those damn flashbacks

The flashbacks are back, and with a vengeance. These damn purely emotional flashbacks, with no memory in my mind, and sometimes (many times) it takes me quite a while to realise that I'm having a flashback.

I had a pretty brutal flashback from at least Monday noon until Tuesday afternoon. I was almost pure fear, an unexplainable fear based on my current situation or some of the things that are going on around me. An emotional flashback. A fear of my past, of my childhood or adolescence.

In a way complex trauma is trauma without memories. Although it is possible that there was also sexual abuse - a topic that always comes back to me - the biggest part of complex trauma is emotional neglect for a long time - in my case for the first 22 years of my life. Complex trauma is the result of a sum of many small events of neglect, and, perhaps, also some of mistreatment or abuse. But since none of them in itself seems very serious, no memories remain. Or, only the emotions remain, only the body remembers.

When we think of trauma and flashback, we usually think that there is a memory of a traumatic event - an accident, a catastrophe, abuse - and that we relive this event, with the images even in our mind. An emotional flashback is different: I relive something traumatic from my childhood or adolescence on an emotional level, but without any memory in my mind.

Pete Walker, in his book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma, describes an emotional flashback as an amygdala hijacking, i.e. the "emotional/irrational brain" takes over from the neocortex, the "rational/thinking brain". Lorena Vara González says in her blog on amygdala hijacking: "Amygdala hijacking is an immediate emotional reaction that is disproportionate to the stimulus that triggered it because it is perceived as a threat to emotional stability. This occurs because the amygdala steals activation from other brain areas, especially the cortex, dominating the subject's behaviour, and shutting down the area that makes us more rational, more human.

The frontal area of the cortex that is inhibited by the hijacking is responsible for our logical thinking or the planning of our actions. In contrast, the amygdala is part of the most primitive structures of our brain and regulates our emotions. Thus, our logical thinking is subordinated to the control by our emotions".

Jorge Gil writes about the emotional flashback on the website Gestalt Salut:

"When a current situation generates an excessive activation of fear, shame or humiliation, among other reactions, it is possible that we are reliving a traumatic experience from the past, that is, that we have an "emotional flashback"."

"An emotional flashback is a situation/experience occurring in the present, which triggers a memory that transports the person to relive an experience that triggered the original psychological trauma.

A present situation connects us to a past situation."

"The flashback catches us by surprise (...).

This transfer is so powerful that sometimes the person does not know what is happening, it is as if our past has kidnapped us and we return to the child state, the old wounds are opened.

Emotional flashbacks are intensely disturbing regressions to traumatic situations, childhood or adolescent, from our history where we experienced fear, shame, humiliation, abuse, exclusion,... Any experience that has struck us in a traumatic way in our psyche".

Then, in an emotional flashback some triggering event - which can be something that happens, something someone else says, or also something internal, a thought - activates the amygdala which takes over. Fear. In my flashbacks, I mainly feel a lot of fear, I turn into pure fear, and the reaction of the amygdala also means that my body starts producing a lot of adrenaline and other hormones related to stress and fear. Although nothing has apparently happened, my body goes on alert, the amygdala takes over, and I have little capacity for rational reflection. Rather, my brain tries to explain the emotions - the fear - based on the present, while in reality the emotions correspond to traumatic events in my past.

It is often difficult for me to realise what is happening to me. I have Pete Walker's 13 steps for managing flashbacks, which are very helpful, but if I don't get to the first step, saying to myself that I'm having a flashback, then I also don't get to the rest of the steps, which may enable me to relax and get out of the flashback.

On Tuesday from midday onwards I began to consider the possibility that I really was in a flashback. However, it took me a few more hours to say to myself that I was, and I went to a café to work through the 13 steps calmly and in a safe space. At this point I failed to identify the trigger (step 11), and also failed to identify what I was flashing back to (step 12). I thought about the trauma of my last relationship, I thought about sex, and again it was not clear to me whether I was thinking about sex with my then partner or another sex as a child. I have no memory, and only some vague thoughts came to me.

At the same time, I don't know anymore if this was really the past I was returning to. Since then, I have experienced several trigger moments of this latest flashback (at least I think so), and each time it has taken me a lot of energy not to crash again. Yesterday afternoon I was on the verge of going back to the flashback, or, perhaps, already at the beginning, but I managed to get out of it and stabilise myself. Today I'm having a hard time not to crash again...

Flashbacks. These emotional flashbacks are really shitty. Jordi Gil says at the end of his text: "The emotional flashback is an opportunity to heal the previous trauma, which seeks to heal itself through repetition in the present.

The important thing is to accept that these flashbacks will occur, not to traumatise them further, and to learn to accompany oneself through them with self-compassion, adulthood and non-criticism".

Maybe so. But I find it difficult to heal the trauma, these situations from my past, if I don't have any memories. I'm with Pete Walker when he says "Minimization about the debilitating consequences of a childhood rife with emotional neglect is at the core of the PTSD denial onion. Our recovery efforts are impeded until we understand how much of our suffering constellates around early emotional abandonment – around the great emptiness that springs from the dearth of parental loving interest and engagement, and around the harrowing experience of being small and powerless while growing up in a world where there is no-one who’s got your back."

However, it is difficult. And, even more so when beyond the emotional neglect there are possibly other aspects, possibly sexual abuse.

My recent emotional flashbacks and also the trauma of my last relationship have put this question on my emotional agenda again, and with force.