Parks and Recreation: Season 2, Episode 23. “Freddie Spaghetti”
Coping with Flashbacks
Flashbacks related to trauma are evoked when sensory or emotional experiences in the present cause a past traumatic event to be evoked. When this traumatic event is evoked it can be re-experienced in both emotions and senses. Emotional flashbacks cause emotional responses appropriate to past trauma to be brought up in response present events. Responses to trauma include the classic “fight-or-flight” and also “freeze” and “fawn” comprising what people call the “Four F” Responses. While fight, flight, freeze, and fawn responses are normal in the context of trauma, when evoked in a present moment by an emotional flashback can appear very out of proportion in contrast to current events.
When confronted with a flashback, it sometimes possible to experience the entire flashback without realizing the cause of the emotions and the response. Not realizing the cause of the emotional response means the emotions get incorrectly attributed to events in the current moment. Long-term lack of recognition of flashback symptoms means repressed emotions and sometimes memories. It also means habitual mis-alignment of past emotions and present experiences and consistently inappropriate emotions and actions can mimic traits of Personality Disorder as well as other disorders.
The healthiest course of action if you find yourself in a flashback is to work to identify the feelings coming from the flashback and the memories associated with them. Identifying the true source of the emotions in an emotional flashback allows for healthy grief of the safety and happiness we were denied in childhood. Overwhelming reactions to past trauma can be an opportunity for learning and healing, but if the reactions go unattributed to their original past source and instead are incorrectly accepted as appropriate in the present, can become a damaging pattern.
The Four Fs Mimic Disorders
FIGHT: Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorders
The fight response is characterized by excessive anger, sometimes coupled with defensiveness. When past emotional experiences surface as though they belong in the present, this anger can be misdirected outwards or inwards. Anger from flashbacks directed inwards can be very damaging, manifesting as self-hatred and self-sabotage. Coming from a home where children are frequently undermined and emotional and/or physically beaten down, this internalized anger is coupled with the feeling of worthlessness the parents bestow upon their children. Self-sabotage is driven by this sense of permanent incapability and the helpless hopelessness Complex PTSD is known for.
Sometimes when confronted with a Narcissist, the best survival method in the moment is to be a Narcissist back. Narcissistic rage is an unbelievable thing to be on the receiving end of and it can seem the only immediate end to it is to rage back, especially when raised in a home where rage is a norm. Outwardly misdirected anger is frequently far more dramatic than appropriate for the present situation. This dramatic anger is frequently paired with excessive defensiveness and near paranoia that others are attacking. Excessive anger, defensiveness, and drama are classic traits of Narcissistic and Borderline Personality Disorders.
FLIGHT: Obsessive Compulsive Disorders
Flight reactions are otherwise defined as “running away from your problems” and the most common manifestation of this is withdrawing from social activities and sometimes “workaholism”. The anxiety generated from past trauma is wrongly attributed to present work and creates an excessive urgency and perfectionism. There is a sense that if the problems with work or other fixations are solved, life in general will be better. The hyperfocussed anxiety can sometimes take the form of upsetting intrusive thoughts or thought loops, sometimes directly related to trauma or present events. These intrusive looping thoughts can be similar to those seen in Purely Obsessive OCD. Flight reaction fixations can be on many things besides work, such as organization, rule-abiding, and the body, but always the goal is the same: get things “just right”. Body fixations can be very similar to Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) especially when the trauma comes from an abusive parent obsessed with body issues themselves or sexual abuse.
The desire to intensively focus on literally anything besides the flashback can be beneficial, so long as the original trauma causing the flashback is recognized and given its appropriate attention as well. Sometimes when faced with a flashback and feeling emotionally burnt out, I’ll indulge my flight reaction and squash a bug in some code. But, like everything, this only works in moderation.
FREEZE: Dissociative Disorders
Dissociation in its simplest form is known as “spacing off” and while we’ve all spaced off, dissociation related to a freeze response can be a stronger nearly trance-like state. The intensity and difficulty exiting of these dissociative states can vary as dissociative disorders, like all disorders, appear on a spectrum. On the extreme end there is Dissociative Identity Disorder, a disorder in which multiple states of consciousness exist within one person. In a lesser form, dissociative disorders include a dependence on dissociation as a way out of a flashback. Besides a dependence on trance-like dissociation, freeze reactions can exaggerate into addictive disorders. Addiction driven by freeze reactions can be to a variety of things beyond drugs and alcohol, including food and television. At the core of freeze responses is self abandonment.
I have always had trouble with mornings as they were a particularly dysfunctional time of day growing up, and for most of my life I have woken up nauseous and panicky. I went through a two-year period in college where I threw up nearly every morning within minutes of waking up. My childhood way of dealing with these morning problems was allow myself to dissociate and sink into a state of unconsciousness to remain safe. This habit lasted on and off through my years in college as a way to settle my stomach before and after throwing up. But I’ve also found these dissociative freeze responses can be a useful tool to relax and withdraw from painful situations and thoughts in a nearly meditative way.
FAWN: Dependent Personality Disorder
Fawn responses to emotional flashbacks cause “fawning” over others, ignoring one’s own needs in favor of others. The fawn response makes us feel that others are more important and that their wants are also more important. Long-term feelings of being “less than” others leaves us thinking we can’t care for ourselves on our own and are unworth of our own care and love. Just like the internalized anger I described above, fawn responses can lead to self-sabotage and self-loathing and leave the experiencer very vulnerable to future abusers who encourage the loathing and sabotage.
The fawn reaction is most helpful when you can teach yourself to direct that energy inwards, which isn’t always easy to do! Obsessively internalized fawning can lead to unhealthy narcissism, but taking the desire you have to make someone else happy and using it to find ways to make yourself happy and care for yourself emotionally can be so beneficial.
Children learn their behavior from their parents. Growing up in a dysfunctional home, we learn dysfunctional behavior from abusive parents and it is normalized by enabler parents. When faced with their parents disordered behavior, fueled by the same emotions the children are experiencing, children mimic the dysfunctional behavior as it is based in emotions they are familiar with. Particularly when this behavior comes from an enabler parents instead of the primary abuser it is easy to mimic as a coping mechanism.
I wrote this short post both to describe the importance of recognizing and controlling flashbacks and reactions to flashbacks, but also as a reminder that at the core of personality disorder traits are these same reactions to trauma. Those of us with parents with personality disorders often fear emulating our parents, and with good reason. And while recognizing the likely childhood cause of our parents’ behavior does not excuse the abuse, it does shed light on why they are the way they are. As I’ve described in previous posts, abuse is a vicious cycle, with disordered parents abusing children into disordered behavior, who in turn can abuse their own children. The only way out of this cycle is education and awareness about our own actions, emotions, and behavior.