If I was writing these things in a more logical order, I probably should have done this one a little earlier on, because it’s so crucial to understanding the mechanism of how C-PTSD actually operates in real life, and how it can take your ‘emotional legs’ out from under you.
Let’s remind ourselves first about what causes C-PTSD:
It’s when you have an experience, or more usually a number of experiences, where you feel threatened or abandoned by your primary caregivers.
Small kids are very simple creatures, with very simple needs. They are also very vulnerable, and very reliant on the adults on their lives to fulfil those simple, basic - but still absolutely crucial - needs.
When that doesn’t happen, when a small kid experiences their primary caregivers as being ‘absent’ from the picture when they really, really need their help (which happens with emotionally absent parents) AND / OR experiences them as ‘dangerous and threatening’ (which happens with abusive parents) - the small kid experiences some huge emotions of fear, shame, and abandonment.
These are the main overwhelming ‘flashback’ states that this small kid kind of gets stuck in when they grow up as an adult with C-PTSD, and that then automatically triggers their preferred fight-flight-freeze-fawn response (what Pete Walker calls the ‘4Fs’, in his book: C-PTSD: From surviving to thriving).
As we’ve also learned previously, many C-PTSD people feel overwhelmed by stress, anxiety, depression, people-pleasing behaviours and anger a great deal of the time, especially if they haven’t yet figured out what’s really causing the problem.
It’s comes with the territory of C-PTSD that not only is your ‘4F’ response (or responses…) to ‘stress’ more intense than for other people, and also lasts longer, but it’s also much more easily triggered for a C-PTSD person, than for someone who wasn’t traumatised in the same way.
DISSECTING HOW C-PTSD FLASHBACKS WORK
OK, so now we’ve set out the stall again, let’s try to dissect what exactly a C-PTSD flashback is, and what it does to you.
Say, you’re trying to get the lid off the spaghetti sauce jar, and you can’t. Unbeknownst to you, this small problem is enough to trigger a sense of helplessness, hopelessness and powerlessness that immediately segues into a ‘flashback’ feeling of when you were small and felt so abandoned, useless and powerless.
Typically, what now kicks in is your ‘inner critic’ aka evil inclination, who usually starts up with heaping doses of abusive name-calling and degradation, like:
“You’ll always be a failure!”
“You can’t do anything right!”
“What sort of loser can’t even make pasta for supper?!”
Etc. Very often, these will be the same sorts of things you were actually told in childhood, either by other people, or by your own evil inclination, that was going all out to make you feel even worse than you already did.
Now that your ‘inner critic’ has painted the situation in the worst possible colours, and pointed out how terrible it is that you can’t even make pasta (making a ‘mountain’ out of a molehill); and / or made it seem like you are completely incapable of taking care of yourself or others in any useful way, that usually kicks off some more huge feelings of fear and shame.
Fear shows up whenever we feel we aren’t ‘safe’ or that we’re in terrible danger (like, of starving to death or having our kids taken away by the social services, because we can’t even make pasta for them….)
Shame, (and I’m really talking about toxic shame, here), shows up whenever our self-esteem has been given a huge battering, and we lose all confidence in our abilities to do, or even to just be.
As a result of all these overwhelming feelings of fear and / or shame, we launch straight into our 4F response, as follows:
FIGHT TYPES - will get furiously angry at the jar, at themselves, at the people they’re trying to make supper.
FLIGHT TYPES - will suddenly remember they have something else urgent they need to do, and will find a way to duck making the pasta.
FREEZE TYPES - will head to the couch, and do their best to ‘escape’ the problem by zoning out, feeling terribly depressed, going to sleep, turning on the TV, aimlessly surfing the net, downing a whisky, popping a pill.
FAWN TYPES - will leave the pasta sauce to spend the next 2 ½ hours 'self-abandoning' by being a shoulder to cry on for their suffering friend.
Of course, I’m generalising wildly, but you get the idea.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT….
What happens next is that if the C-PTSD person doesn’t work out what’s really going on, they will now add ‘opening lids’ to their long list of subconscious things that should be avoided at all costs, if they don’t want to feel bad again.
And this is the way that more and more very mundane ‘triggers’ accumulate, that can really start to have a huge impact on the daily life of someone who has C-PTSD.
HOW TO STOP A ‘FLASHBACK’ IN ITS TRACKS
1) NAME THE PROBLEM: Say out loud: “This is a flashback, it’s from the past, nothing ‘bad’ is happening now.”
2) REASSURE YOURSELF: Tell yourself that you’re not in danger, and that you haven’t done anything wrong. You aren’t going to get into trouble with your parents.
3) ACKNOWLEDGE THIS IS A PASSING PHASE: While the feelings of fear, shame and overwhelm used to seem as though they would last forever when we were small, as adults we know that these feelings are temporary and won’t last forever.
4) IDENTIFY THE FEELINGS UNDERNEATH THE ‘FLASHBACK’: This is crucial for reconnecting to that small, terrified ‘lost’ part of yourself that you’ve actually just ‘flashback-ed’ to, and for helping him / her to start feeling better. Here’s some common examples of the real feelings that are hiding underneath a flashback: small, overwhelmed, scared, ‘no-choice’, powerless, stuck, petrified, sad, heart-broken, lonely.
5) COUNTER THE ‘INNER CRITIC’: Again, this takes some practise, but as soon as the inner critic / evil inclination starts trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, and paint the situation in the worse possible colours, or make out like you are the most disgusting, awful person in the world - close them down! Tell yourself: “This is my evil inclination talking, and it’s trying to kill me…”
6) GET ANGRY AT YOUR ‘INNER CRITIC’: When you were little, you couldn’t stand up for yourself, or put things in the correct perspective. As an adult, you don’t have to accept the insults and lies that your evil inclination is telling you! Fight back and defend yourself! Insults and abusive comments are completely unacceptable - even when they are coming from yourself!
7) ASK GOD FOR HELP, AND FOR EMUNA TO KNOW THAT EVERYTHING IS COMING FROM HIM, AND IS REALLY OK: While I’ve put this down here at 7, you can do this at every stage of the process. Connecting to God like this can instantly stop a flashback in its tracks all by itself.
8) FOCUS ON YOUR BODY AND YOUR FEELINGS, INSTEAD OF YOUR THOUGHTS: This will bring you back to the ‘present’ and get you out of your flashback mode. Take a few deep breaths, stand still or sit down and stop rushing around, if you feel scared, or ashamed, don’t fight it. Accept that feeling these feelings is part of your healing process, and that they won’t last forever.
9) ASK GOD TO SHOW YOU WHO OR WHAT TRIGGERED YOUR FLASHBACK, AND WHY: This is another crucial part of the healing process. Once you figure out what set it off (in our case, the feelings of powerlessness that came from being unable to open the spaghetti jar), just knowing that means that you’ll be able to do things differently or better next time around.
10) BE ON YOUR OWN SIDE: Reassure yourself that you are really good, and that all those negative feelings you were feeling in flashback mode - like something terrible is about to happen to you; like you’re the most disgusting person in the world; like you are the biggest waste of space on the planet and don’t deserve to be alive, God forbid - aren’t real, or true.
Be on your own, ‘small kid’s’ side, and tell yourself that you are allowed to make mistakes, that you struggled mightily growing up, through no fault of your own, and that with God’s help, it’s all going to turn around for the good very soon.
This is not going to get fixed in five minutes, and you shouldn't expect too much from yourself too soon, or start beating yourself up when you can't deliver on the overly-ambitious timetable you may have set for yourself.
This is long-term work, so please give yourself the time and space it requires, and relate to yourself with as much compassion, caring and love as you can, when you catch yourself reverting to ‘flashback’ mode.