Our brains are constantly receiving sensory information about our environments. Images, sounds, tastes, scents, and textures are being taken in and interpreted so that we know how to respond to the world around us. The heat of a pan on the stove is registered as dangerous, we feel a quick shot of fear, and pull our hands away. The quiet of a park may indicate we are somewhere with few stressors, we relax, and our heart rate and breathing slow.
Our brains' intake and interpretation of sensory information generally happen outside of our conscious awareness. This is the world of the unconscious.
People with traumatic histories may unconsciously respond to their environments by having a flashback. The brain takes in sensory information, such as hearing a word that is associated on some deep level with the traumatic experience, and calls forth a response.
Many people are aware that flashbacks are a common symptom of PTSD. You may think of classic pop culture depictions of Vietnam soldiers who suddenly believe that they are back in the jungle in response to hearing a car backfire or fireworks. They may respond by diving for cover or becoming aggressive to ward off the danger. Again, sensory information is interpreted by the brain, leading to an emotional experience and behaviors that make sense within that particular context.
Flashbacks are often experienced as suddenly feeling as if you are back in the traumatic event. However, many people have emotional flashbacks as well. During an emotional flashback, you may suddenly be overwhelmed by the emotions associated with the trauma despite being completely aware that you are in the present.
Without realizing it, you have had a sensory experience that triggered that old feeling of terror. You may then react in a way that any terrified person would: trying to escape, becoming aggressive, or freezing in place. You may even have a panic attack.
Because emotional flashbacks may not have a visual component that helps you label them appropriately as a flashback, you may be left confused and afraid of your emotional experience. People often feel ashamed that they felt or acted in what seemed like a bizarre manner. In reality, though, this is a common PTSD symptom.
If you have an emotional flashback, you are not being "crazy" or "over dramatic." You are having a painful experience that requires compassion and support to be resolved.
Recognizing what triggers your emotional flashbacks can also help you make plans for how to manage your response in the future and reach out for help. Understanding what you are experiencing gives you power.