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Emotional Flashbacks

This is another in a series of blogs looking at managing intense emotions. Emotional flashbacks are probably the most intense internal experiences we can have and result from past traumatic experiences.

A flashback or a panic attack?

How is an emotional flashback different to a panic attack? (See my previous blogs on panic attacks – click here and here) People often confuse panic attacks with flashbacks, as they have a lot in common. A rule of thumb is that a panic attack is a response to extreme anxiety and or stress and does not necessarily need to have been triggered by a past event. Panic attacks can evoke almost all the same physiological responses and they are extremely unpleasant, but they are not always associated with memory or past trauma. Often, they are stress-induced or the reason is subconscious and the person is unaware of the trigger. Or they can come on out of nowhere,  such as in the queue at the supermarket checkout. 

What is an emotional flashback?

Most of us are familiar with the concept of flashbacks – we know that soldiers who are war veterans may experience flashbacks when they are in situations that are similar to a traumatic event from the past. For example, a combat Veteran may have flashbacks to his or her time in the military when war scenes are shown on TV or in a movie or when a car backfires.

What people often are unaware of is that there are also FEELING flashbacks rather than visual or auditory flashbacks (although there may be other components such as images, sounds or smells or tastes). 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.. 

An emotional flashback really relates to the past but is so confusing and overwhelming that is common for the person experiencing it to be unaware of what is happening. This can look like ‘switching off’, ‘going blank’, stopping talking, staring into the distance, crying, hyperventilating, or anxiety symptoms such as pounding heart or feeling as if it is difficult to breathe. Very often, to the outsider looking in, the person seems quiet and even calm – they cannot see the intensity going on beneath the surface. Other times they see what they feel is an incomprehensible OVER-REACTION. This can unfortunately result in them making judgmental accusations that we can’t cope, we are “a drama queen”,  we are making a mountains out of molehills. The person who is experiencing the flashback may also judge themselves in this harsh way – “for goodness sake, get a grip, what’s wrong with you?”

A physical reaction

A trauma flashback reaction may begin with ringing in the ears, tunnel vision, a lump in the throat, difficulty swallowing and breathing, feeling light headed, nauseous, profuse sweating, an accelerated heart rate akin to being on a treadmill, restless legs and trouble remaining seated. These are prompts from our nervous system to fight, flee or freeze. They are accompanied by…

A mental reaction

The most overwhelming reaction is often fear which can become so intense that people dissociate and are unsure of where they are or what they are doing or will forget what they were doing before it happened. It can be hard to distinguish between trauma time and the present when a flashback is occurring. 

These reactions can be triggered by all kinds of stimuli – certain people or situations, colours, smells, places, or our own thoughts –  and result in the opening up of a carefully secured file in our brain of old memories that make it feel like a traumatic experience is happening now — all over again.


As a general rule of thumb, in a panic attack, people tend to need to reduce their amount of external stimuli. They may feel the need to leave where they are and get to a safe place like a bedroom or their car or a washroom. Often they need a quiet space where they can use deep slow breathing, deep enough to pull the tummy in and exhaling long enough to puff the tummy out. And they use self talk as assurance: “I’ve got this — I’m safe. It’s just a panic attack. This will pass. Breathe. Relax your shoulders.” 

Flashbacks often (not always) require the opposite approach — the need to increase external stimuli to bring one back into the present. The mind has dissociated, it has stepped out of the present time, it is reliving an event that has already happened and belief we are back there, frozen in time.

My next blog will look at powerful ways to manage emotional flashbacks.

Book a counselling session today!


Need some advice and support?

If you are struggling with any of the issues raised in this article, or indeed any other emotional issues or life challenges and would like to talk things over in complete confidentiality, call Alison Winfield, Mindfully Well Counselling Cork on 087 9934541.

See also: How to Manage Intense Emotions

Panic Attacks

Panic Attack Drill