Emotional Flashbacks: Putting Words to a Lifetime of Confusing Feelings
PTSD UK was founded with the desire to do what was possible to make sure nobody ever felt as alone, isolated or helpless as our Founder did in the midst of PTSD. We’ve come a long way on our journey as a small, and still relatively new charity, and last year marked a significant milestone as we welcomed Rachel to our team. As many of you know, sharing your story can feel like a rollercoaster of emotions—cathartic yet scary, but Rachel’s wisdom and insight into Emotional Flashbacks from C-PTSD are another reminder why we’re so proud of our team – our experiences shape our work, and we know if makes it all the more powerful and impactful. This is Rachel’s story….
“I sit amidst the dunes, watching the ebb and flow of the freezing tide with hazy eyes fixed on an impossibly grey horizon. Dark, cast-iron figures are scattered across Crosby beach, emerging silent from receding waves. A bleak yet hopeful reminder: sometimes the waves will swallow us, and yet, if we can stay grounded enough to stand tall, eventually the tide will recede.
Apt really, since I feel like I’m drowning.
I’d just been diagnosed with Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). I don’t remember the long drive to the beach, but I do remember the impulse to run. To run far away from everyone. The few loved ones who knew would ask how I was feeling, and all I could think was: how can I possibly put words to something so deeply challenging to express? Communication is my craft, but this one had me stumped.
It’s taken me a long time to be able to write about my experience with C-PTSD, but seeing others put words to a lifetime of confusing feelings has been the single most liberating aspect in my journey towards understanding. In sharing my story, I hope to set others free from the painful shame and confusion that characterise the condition; if you read this and resonate, know that you’re not alone.
Coming to Terms With C-PTSD
Coming to terms with a missing piece of yourself feels a bit like being in a hall of mirrors during an earthquake. Misdiagnosed for half a lifetime with depression and anxiety, to finally dig up an embodied understanding of C-PTSD in my 30’s was a painful process. Grieving a lost sense of self is inherently confusing, compounded by the niggling, daily discomfort of waking up in new shoes.
With searing clarity, I began to realise that C-PTSD had been running in the background for most of my life, unchecked. I’d felt familiarity when reading about PTSD previously, but it never quite fit the bill. I’d smugly scrutinise the list of symptoms as though it was all long behind me. Well over a decade on from a series of traumatic events, a solid stint of trial and error had granted me ways and means to manage my mental health, and I saw myself as a strong, resilient, confident woman who had her shit together.
As it turns out, I had simply applied a plaster, only to now realise that the wound beneath was still fresh and gaping as it always had been.
On realising this, layers of the self I thought I knew folded away quicker than I could hold onto them, like flicking pages between finger and thumb. My thoughts became stuck in a loop; how much of me is my trauma? How much of who I am is defined by unprocessed past? The triggers and resulting emotional flashbacks common to C-PTSD had slipped below the radar, long understood as parts of my personality for which I felt deep shame and confusion. They felt like broken parts of me that no amount of therapy or self-seeking seemed to “fix.” Parts of me to be hidden away. Masked.
A Raw Nerve, Exposed
Bringing these parts of myself to light was raw. For a while after the diagnosis, I felt like a shadow; shifting small shapes across walls as my sense of self shattered into a million pieces, day after day after day. I would project endless movie memories from my mind’s eye through a vacant stare at the ceiling, replaying the countless moments that led to this one, over and over…
Here I am again, locked in a bathroom, weeping silently into my elbow. Nothing new. Cognitively, I understand that these tears are dissonant and disproportionate to the situation, but this grief runs deep. Visceral. It’s familiar somehow, and yet beyond language. Beyond comprehension. An insidious sadness that springs out of nowhere and terrifies me into conviction that depression is back with a vengeance. No matter how many times I find myself here, the depth of this emotion is jarring. Profoundly confusing, it takes me by surprise and knocks me off my feet every single time. Like being winded—as shocking as it is disorienting. In fact, it feels much the same; a gut-punch of solar plexus sorrow, stealing breath and leaving me momentarily bereft of understanding.
I watch as years later, I am weeping behind the steering wheel at a petrol station. Howling. Securely strapped in with a destination in mind, yet completely frozen as I stare into cavernous despair. When the tears finally slow, I’m not sure if minutes or hours have passed. My periphery feels alarmingly wide, eyes hungry for the entire horizon. I feel like I am hitting the accelerator and the break at the same time, and who knows—maybe I am? I have lost all contact with my body. A three-hour drive somehow turns into seven as I pull over, over and over, sporadically flooded with tears and confusion, forgetting where I am coming from and going to. Suffocating on incongruent hysterics.
And here, again, another innocuous interaction triggers a full-body response. I am a raw nerve. Exposed. Vulnerable not only to contact, but to the searing pain that comes with the very thought of it. Hypersensitive and hyper-focused on even the slightest hint of threat from other humans. I have a sudden and unshakable mistrust for all people—even those I love—and an equally unshakable desire to cut ties with everyone I’ve ever known and flee to a faraway cave. A fleetingly lucid thought crosses my mind—maybe the hermit yogis were traumatised too? I don’t laugh. It seems entirely plausible.
By the time I am sitting on the dunes of Crosby beach post-diagnosis, I am similarly fragile but finally beginning to understand. My nervous system has been in overdrive for weeks; tension that won’t shift, exhaustingly x-ray vision and an alertness that causes me to jump at the slightest sound. My usually hearty appetite has all but vanished and my breath is completely stuck. A faraway voice inside reminds me to take a deep breath. Each time I try, I feel panic rising in my chest. That same small voice reminds me of my now well-established trauma toolbox and I try desperately to ground my feet into the cold, damp sand, but they feel impossibly distant. A million miles away—certainly not attached to my body.
Understanding Emotional Flashbacks
I now understand each of these instances to have been an emotional flashback: a spontaneous and often prolonged regression into the childlike states, intense emotions and nervous system dysregulation associated with traumatic memories. The painfully sneaky thing about C-PTSD is that the memories are often deeply subconscious; something seemingly harmless can suddenly trigger a full-blown trauma response without any cognitive understanding of what is unfolding or why. Until I understood this process, the confusion it caused was sometimes unbearable enough that I no longer wanted to live; when in true turmoil, there is a strange serenity that comes with the very notion of ceasing to exist. And whilst flashbacks feel like one, long, terrifying nightmare, it was the normalcy of these dark thoughts that scared me the most.
This speaks to the intensity of how C-PTSD can feel. Emotional flashbacks are a true wilderness of human experience; a bleak and barren realm of the heart, a heart often pounding endlessly, erratically. Even once the initial tidal wave of confusing emotion recedes, the residual physiological symptoms are both difficult to bear and somehow impossible to explain. Inexplicably high alert, the whole world in painfully high definition, every detail a threat. Emotional flashbacks can leave you feeling heightened and emotionally confused for days and even weeks afterwards. Heart racing, breath shallow, sleep impossible.
Before I knew what they were, the effect of emotional flashbacks on my sleep was the clearest sign that there was something much more to this than being a person who feels things deeply. In the days that followed these moments of spontaneous deep despair, I’d feel my entire body pulsing as I tried to sleep, as though my nervous system was trying to break free from its prison of flesh. Sometimes I’d wake up in a full-blown panic, heart pounding, drenched in sweat. I spent hours one morning packing a bag with no destination, desperate to escape but unable to think of a place to go. I now recognise this as full flight mode; a state I’ve lived through countless times without ever understanding its roots.
From Numbness to Knowing
I’d alternate between this heightened chaos and a state of unfathomable numbness, in which I’d lose all capacity to feel. To feel joy, sadness, grief, worry, fear. To feel hunger, cold, even my own skin. I remember once looking at my arm in total disbelief that it belonged to me. Alien limbs on a body I didn’t recognise. A body I couldn’t remember inhabiting. In this state of quiet shock, I was so deeply dissociated and disembodied that I managed to cross from one side of the kitchen to the other before I realised that the baking tray in my hand was searing my skin. That same day, my flatmate arrived home to windows flung open long before, asking how I hadn’t noticed the freezing February cold both outside and in. I had no idea. When it comes, the numbness is as physical as it is emotional.
Being a person who normally feels everything intensely, it is undeniably disconcerting to lose this faculty. But once I understood C-PTSD, numbness became somehow fascinating rather than terrifying. Like watching a crisis unfold on the news; you can see everything spiralling, but it seems so very far, far away. When in the midst of it now, I can sense that it’s somehow protective. It saves me from feeling a violent intensity of wild, unbridled emotion as I navigate all that is unfolding within me. As I navigate the earthshattering shift in perspective that is C-PTSD.
Ultimately, now I know.
Now I understand these signals as signs to find safety. When my heart is oscillating wildly between hope and utter hopelessness, I remember: this part of me is stuck in the past. When an objectively ordinary interaction with someone causes me to fall through the pit of my own stomach, I remember: this isn’t about the here and now. When my nervous system tries to burst out from my skin I no longer try to keep it all in, I remember: this is trauma speaking. This is information for me to work with. This agony is alchemy.
There is Nothing to Fix
I always thought I was broken, but I now know that these storms of sorrow are utterly proportionate to what my system is processing. These heightened states are rarely just about whatever present moment is unfolding in front of me; more often, there is a younger version of me surfacing, stuck in overwhelming fear. Hijacking my system in frantic desperation to be seen and heard. I now understand that these wounded parts do not define who I am. When they are acknowledged and explored, loved and held rather than exiled in shame, they tend to quiet more quickly. And each time, it gets a little easier. I remember a little quicker.
When emotional flashbacks now threaten the present, I tell myself clearly that my past is showing up to teach me something about safety, security, and stability in the here and now. There is nothing to fix, and everything to learn. I do my best to trace incongruent emotions or unnerving sensations back to their roots deep within my system, embedded within my history, and I follow their adrenaline fuelled impulse out to my fingers and toes before they act out of fear. I dig deep and do whatever I need to do to let emotions move through me, without being swept away by erroneous stories of self. Without letting narratives run riot.
It’s rarely easy and never perfect, but I understand with painstaking awareness that if I want to find peace in my heart and ease in my body, I must interrupt these patterns. Rewrite these grooves. And how is this possible? Because I now accept that these moments do not define me, that these emotions will not destroy me. Through experience, I know that I can fully feel the intensity of these feelings and survive.
These days, when a wave of intense emotion arises, I often think back to those cast-iron sculptures staring out to sea. Ultimately, sometimes the waves will swallow us. And yet, if we can stay grounded enough to stand tall and feel it all, eventually the tide will recede.“
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