Emotional Flashback Management in the Treatment of Complex PTSD

Emotional Flashback Management in the Treatment of Complex PTSD

by Pete Walker

Pete Walker provides a convincing argument for the recognition and proper treatment of emotional flashbacks and complex PTSD, which result from childhood neglect and emotional abuse.
Early in my career I worked with David,* a handsome, intelligent client who was a professional actor. One day David came to see me after an unsuccessful audition. Beside himself, he burst out: "I never let on to anyone, but I know that I'm really very ugly; it's so stupid that I'm trying to be an actor when I'm so painful to look at."
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Copyright © 2009 Psychotherapy.net. All rights reserved. Published September, 2009.
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Pete Walker

Pete Walker is director of the Lafayette Counseling Center. He has been working as a teacher and mental health professional for thirty years, and is the author of The Tao of Fully Feeling: Harvesting Forgiveness Out of Blame. He presents on this topic annually at JFK University and has also presented the topic at the 40st Annual CAMFT Conference and several EBCAMFT chapter meetings.

Elaborations of the principles in this article—the importance of shrinking the inner critic, the role of grieving in trauma recovery, and the need to be able to stay self-compassionately present to dysphoric affect—as well on his writings on trauma typology and the role of trauma in codependence, can be downloaded for free from his website: www.pete-walker.com. He can also be reached at 925-283-4575.

I never knew what it was that was causing me to reach for a couple of cans of cider on a weekly basis. now I know it was the feelings of despair that would occasionally arise from what it seemed to be nowhere and for no reason. Reading this has given me that insight into recognizing the repetitive pattern that I have been sinking into the last 25 years....ahhh that's what that feeling is that I have had torment me for far too long. Eureeka! I am now free to self soothe! Thank you
This article is absolutely wonderful and healing. I just found it after going through many of these steps on my own and feel validated. Thank you so much!
Thank You, Thank You, Thank You, You have answered what is wrong with me? and my sis. You have clarified my life perfectly . Given me the answers I have been searching for to help me . We have Complex PTSD . Oh the relief . Ahhh! at last. Now have hope and understanding . Very Grateful :-)
Suzanne M
Thanks so much for a succinct - but detailed and practical enough - overview of flashbacks and addressing them. As a parent of two teen-agers by adoption, with a therapist working on addressing flashbacks, I really needed this kind of overview.
Janet P
Thank you so much, I have been in therapy for a while now and was still very confused as to what my diagnosis was, and now I have clarity after reading your article, I attend group analytical therapy, is this what you would recommend
This is the most amazing thing I have learned in my life. No one has ever explained the disasters of my life like this approach does. you have totally described my life, and more than that, opened the door for me to walk out and live. I cannot express my gratitude towards you for publishing this information in its entirety instead of asking me to pay to find out. I am quite speechless in finding words to thank you.
This article gave me the conceptual language I needed to give myself permission to talk about my childhood without feeling embarrassed about the need to.
Carol Steffens
Thank you for your intelligent and empathetic article. I feel like the patient who, after suffering debilitating symptoms for ages, has finally been diagnosed with a specific and real illness. Emotional flashbacks describe the agonising emotional pain and self hatred accurately.
Well written, succinct, and very helpful. The article provided me a new frame of reference for two of my clients - both experiencing complex PTSD - and how I might work with them in a more directive way in the session. Thanks, Pete!
George Kraus, Ph.D., ABPP
Thank you for writing your article about Complex PTSD - I never knew such a thing existed. Your explanation of Complex PTSD and most importantly, what to do about emotional flashbacks has been enormously helpful. It's been my personal experience that when a parent has a physical, mental, or emotional disorder (in my case, my dad had a pituitary tumor for 10 years and he exhibited intense hormonal mood swings, turning his anger and wrath on me on a daily basis - during those years, there were no PET/CT's nor MRI's, only X-rays), a child can suffer greatly and then in adulthood, unconsciously try to recreate the past in order to heal the present - doesn't work, I can say. I haven't seen much in the literature about Complex PTSD and families who have an ill parent - this may be a good topic to continue to write about within that context, yes?! Anyway, thank you again - your techniques for dealing with Complex PTSD have added to my healing and I am grateful.
i am glad you are alive! i'm so happy to have found this thank you so much!
There is nothing I could ever find (religion, substance, etc.) that assists in putting together my 'what is wrong with me?' puzzle more than knowledge, and this article is powerful. I much like Mike have that same hope, but I know where that comes from and have the power to squash it now. Thank you.
Thank you so much for your writing. I am a mental health therapist (social worker) who has taken time off to deal with my own issues. Your writing was a source of comfort and rang very true for me, personally.
Thank you for trying, but in some cases there is absolutely no hope. My life is hell and no amount of therapy can change that. I hope I die soon.
I first reading this article about 6 months ago. Today I was experiencing fear and suddenly realized it was my little child who was the frightened one and that my adult self was strong and healthy. Immediately the fear dissipated. I am 71 and I am glad this information is available. Thank you so very much for your own process that led you to help so many others.
Thank you. "Resonant" expresses my reaction to this article. Gentle tears falling because of Your understanding.
I have never (in my entire life of research into abuse) read a better article. Thank you Pete Walker for changing my life today and giving me hope for my future.
Danielle Christopher
Thank you so much for this article; thank you for writing and sharing so eloquently your years of insight and work.
This is the most helpful and informative information I have ever found.At 72 I'm still fighting PTSD and flashbacks. I'm taking this page to my Doctor who is terrific, but using this info will help because it talks of whats in my mind that I had no idea was important.God bless whoever researched and published this excellent work.
C Brooks
Thank you, Pete, for this revelatory essay. I am 70 and finally understand that my emotional disturbances come when I am overwhelmed - as they did when I was a child. I'd never heard of emotional flashbacks before and now I have a footing on which to address this. What a relief!
Margie Borchers
I'm glad to know that I am not alone in all of my feelings. Thanks.
I recently plunged into three months of utter despair after seemingly getting to grips with emotional flashbacks. Reading this article reminded me that all was not lost and I could move forward again I had just temporarily forgotten how to. Thank you so much.
This is awesome, so spot on. Great help.
Peter, thank you so much for your articles on PTSD. I have read many and yours show so much real knowledge that every time I read them I understand more and more what has and what happens to me. In that way they are truly freeing.
Yes, like everyone else says, thank you for articulating this issue so eloquently - something that seems to escape the grasp of most every therapist I've seen in my life (and I've seen PLENTY).
Wonderful article! Your clients are so fortunate to benefit from your wisdom and sensitivity.
Reading this pulled me out of a really bad funk this morning. I found myself relating to just about everything you wrote. I just could not bear the thought of buying another book to figure out what is "wrong" with me. Your clients are lucky and we are lucky to have found this article to make sense out of what feels senseless. Finally, KUDOS to all of us for finding the articles because it means we are "doing the work" to better ourselves. Thank you so much Pete Walker
Stephanie D
Like so many others, I find this approach really useful and I have a very strong inner critic. On occasion, I actually hear my parents' voices (most usually mom) say things like 'oh, just leave it' or 'for goodness sake'. This encourages my dissociative freeze response. But here Complex PTSD sufferers are perfectionists and workaholics, not me at all. I feel I need to know more about how someone like me, a Freeze who dissociates and simply stops working, should approach things.
Peter, I've read your stuff and have to thank you for your work. You understand me so well. I've suffered PTSD for 35 years from abuse and neglect in childhood. I've never heard anyone who can explain it so well.
This article is excellent. I am a therapist as well as a complex PTSD survivor. I appreciated what the author had to say on many levels. Showed t to my therapist who happens to get it. I'm fortunate to have found someone who does. Previous comment about some therapists not getting it and making things worse - absolutely true,especially of my first therapist. Thanks for writing this.
Absolutely brilliant. Thank you so much for writing this, I have done 3 years of various therapy & through much research of the many comments by my psychiatrist & issues I seem to have that just dont quite fit the label. Ive had a lifetime of misery & depression & finally reached out for help when I began projecting my shame & distress onto my children. Thank God I got fantastic Help through the NHS. I was very lucky. The past couple of weeks I have been researching complex trauma & complex PTSD & it all makes so much sense. Brilliant.
This is an amazing article. I wonder if you even have a sense of how powerful it is. I am going to share it with my counselor. It gave me hope just reading it. I have so much empathy for you going through the psychoanalytic psychotherapy...I did that too, with disastrous results. The good news is, if we are still alive and breathing and can talk and listen, there is always hope to heal. Thank you for taking the time to put all of this information in a very accessible, practical format. It's a gift. God bless you as you continue your work.
Sara Ann
Who are you how wonderful a human being to have cared enough to figure us out. Omg 40 years ive lived like this and people think we are weak. Thanks from the bottom of my heart. I truly hope i don't forget and slide back. I saved u to my home screen my current theripist doesnt have clue she should not be helping people like me they can make us sicker if they dont know what they are doing. Kat (CPTSD) You are a needle in a hay stack god bless u
I too feel reading your article has transformed my life, thank you :-) After 30+ years of searching for support, I have in the past few years been in supportive therapeutic relationships, & am now seeking resources for myself. Your words have brought me huge, healing, relief, Blessings :-) xm
Maree Robertson
Excellent article! I was researching PTSD in graduate school and learned about complex PTSD back in 2006. You article was right on target, practical and useful, as are your 13 tools for managing emotional falshbacks. Keep up the good work!
Ed Saddy
Thank you. This piece is uplifting and I feel permission to be kind to myself. Please keep writing.
This is a fantastic and deeply compassionate and human centered perspective. It could also be applied to people who have been subjected to less intense forms of neglect but which nevertheless cause the person to behave in selfabandoning ways, particularly within relationships. The interventions list is a much needed 'how - to' set of tools that is all too often absent in and amongst all the theorising that abounds in the world of the helping professions.
francesca Zammit Cutajar
I wonder, can a form of PTSD be caused by emotional abuse and abandonment in adult life, say from adultery and a nasty divorce. The have experience I have had with some people rings very true to PTSD from childhood abuse. What are the main differences, if any, between symptoms and treatments for PTSD (or PTSD like reactions) as result of abandonment and emotional abuse in adults?
I feel the same way as the other commenters.. what a helpful, thoughtful, thorough, well written article! I feel like I have been 'set free' so to speak. - Years of trying to put words to what I go through - depression, anxiety, panic, triggers, mood swings, - self loathing, worthlessness - and all of it connected, I knew, to the parenting I never got and to the family that still treats me like the garbage can for all of their troubles as I sink deeper into self blame. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I will be working on the techniques you recommend. I will never forget this article.. ever.
Thank you so much for such a deeply caring article. It's helped enormously now and I have no doubt will continue to in the future. The pain of the shame of existence can't be trumped. But thank you again for showing me it can slowly be put to rest.
Pete Walker. You have given me a model and words with with which to materialize and emote my lifelong pain of infantile issolation and emotional neglect. You are the only one I have found writing directly on this. You are feeding my tramatized inner child. Thank you for loving him through you work.
This article was so dead on....unbelieveably helpful. Fortunately, I have a great therapist, but even so - it added enormously to my understanding of things. Thank you, Pete Walker!!
No comments?! Reading this article has done more to help me heal than my five years plus worth of weekly psychotherapy sessions that I currently participate in! Eternally grateful to you, Pete Walker!
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CE credits: 1.5
Learning objectives:

  • Define emotional flashbacks.
  • Describe therapeutic tasks for working with clients who suffer emotional flashbacks.
  • Educate clients about the author's thirteen tools for managing their own emotional flashbacks.
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