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Coping with overwhelming emotions after trauma

When we suffer from traumatic stress and PTSD, anxiety, panic, shame and overwhelming anger can arise in what are known as “emotional flashbacks.  Coping with overwhelming emotions after trauma is one of the most difficult symptoms we have to deal with. An extreme reaction might be triggered by a relatively benign event in the here-and-now, such as running late for an appointment or losing a set of keys.

Unlike visual/auditory flashbacks, these emotional flashbacks can sometimes last hours, even days and can transport us in an instant back to frightening or abandoned feelings from our childhood or to when the traumatic event took place.

Why do we experience these emotional flashbacks?

It is, as with many of our symptoms, an example of our nervous system trying its best to protect us by activating the fight or flight survival instinct so that we take immediate action. We can experience many different kinds of overwhelming emotions but fear, despair or helplessness and anger are very common ones.

When fear is the dominant emotion, a person feels overwhelmed, panicky or even suicidal. When despair predominates, it creates a sense of profound numbness, paralysis, and an urgent need to hide away. We can sometimes simply feel small, powerless and helpless. Anger can cause us to strike out and cause actual physical harm to others or ourselves.

Because most emotional flashbacks do not have a visual or memory component to them, we often don’t realise that we are re-experiencing a traumatic time from the past. We try to cope by using survival strategies such as self harming, hiding ourself away, being over-controlling or aggressive, or addiction activities.

Coping with overwhelming emotions after trauma

What can you do when your feel an emotional hijacking is underway? Well, the most important thing to do is to recognise that it IS happening rather than getting carried away by it all, and reacting on the spur of the moment, doing something that we may later regret.

Then, trying to “name” the emotion can be extremely helpful – is it fear? Is it anger? Is it a mix of a few different emotions? We often feel more than one emotion at one time, or “mixed feelings”. In the midst of deep sadness, we can still smile at something happening around us.  It’s important to understand that there are no “good” or “bad” emotions – we need to experience the full spectrum. Negative emotions aid in our survival and can be vital clues that situations in our lives need attention.

What emotion am I feeling?

Cross-cultural research into emotions has identified 7 basic emotions that are all expressed, facially, in the same way in all human populations . These are anger, fear, disgust, joy (or happiness), sadness and contempt. Each of these basic emotions has many variations within it. For example, anger can be felt as rage, fury, bitterness, hate, irritation, envy or torment. Joy can be felt as cheerful, amused, delighted, contented, optimistic or elated. Sadness can include misery, despair, hopelessness, grief and sorrow.

It is normal for those of us who have experienced trauma to have a tough time identifying our feelings. Realise that all feelings, both positive and negative, are valid and a normal part of life and don’t even judge them. They change, they are expressed, and then we return to normal. The idea is to first RECOGNISE feelings so that we can control what we do with them.

Try this simple 3 step approach:

  1.  Name your emotions

When you feel overwhelmed by emotions, stop, and take time out to name them. This gives

us a sense of control over them and helps us to express emotions verbally rather than needing to act them out. Also recognise gradations – “I’m feeling really angry, but I can also notice some fear in there.”

  1. Don’t judge them

Simply observe them, don’t beat yourself up over feeling as you do. Feelings do rise and fall.

  1. Be curious

Ask yourself: “What percent of your feeling fits with what just happened in the here-and-now? How much of it is probably related in some way to the trauma?  50%? 80% ? Feelings always make sense. Like a scientist who observes with detachment, see if you can identify the cause or trigger of the feelings. Distinguish between feelings and actions. You don’t have to do anything with feelings if you choose not to. Or you might constructively express your feelings in writing or talk things over with someone you trust.

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.

Book a counselling session today!

See also: Trauma and Shame, Trauma and the Freeze Response

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