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  • Writer's pictureSanja Rozman

How do I stop emotional overreacting? First Aid basics for Emotional Outbursts.

Updated: Apr 7

"I am going to ruin my marriage.

Every time my husband starts packing for his business trips or even for a basketball evening with his friends, I go mad, fearing that he is going to leave me. I know he loves me and is loyal, but I just can’t stop myself from overreacting. I’m afraid that my fear of abandonment will turn into a self-fulfilling prophesy. Help!” asked my client Maya desperately."


Emotional flashbacks


A flashback, or involuntary recurrent memory, is a psychological phenomenon in which an individual has a is a sudden, usually powerful, re-experiencing of a past experience or elements of a past experience. It is one of the symptoms of the posttraumatic stress disorder. Often it is used in movies to tell the back story of a character’s trauma, and in this case it’s visual, but it may just as well be only emotional or sensual (body feeling).

It may be triggered by some sound, smell or music that played at the time of the trauma. It is extremely intense, almost unbearable and, at the time, the person is usually unaware that they’re re-experiencing a memory. They lose the sense of time and believe that the danger is present, although it’s not. Just like for Maya, who had experienced emotional abandonment by both her alcoholic father and chronically depressed mother, any hint of her husband’s leaving triggers an emotional reaction far beyond what the situation demands, and the fights she provokes in her distress seriously threaten her marriage. 


Intense emotional reactions may serve as a warning that you might be in danger, but when they are accompanied by intense helplessness, desperate hopelessness and the feeling like you are a small kid, it may be that you are experiencing an emotional flashback. In this case, the emotional reaction tells nothing about the imminent danger, but is rather re-experiencing a traumatic memory of long ago. In recovery from trauma, in the hands of a seasoned therapist, such memories may help discover the source of the emotional pain (see blog: Why can't I escape my past?).


Flashbacks are opportunities to release old, unexpressed feelings of fear, hurt, and abandonment, and to validate—and then soothe—the child's past experience of helplessness and hopelessness. To learn more about them, read Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving: A Guide and Map for Recovering from Childhood Trauma.


But emotional flashbacks will often happen when a therapist is not present, and people need advice how to handle them. I know that people in crisis or high emotional stress often can’t access their full capacity for reason, so they need very simple instructions what to do to stop acting out. The 'FIRST AID BASICS FOR EMOTIONAL OUTBURSTS' is something like ABC Emergency First Aid Kit for when you freak out and overreact. Follow the process below to avoid ruining your relationships by insulting your partner with the words you don’t really mean.



First Aid Basics for Emotional Outbursts

'First Aid Basics for Emotional Outbursts'


A - AWARENESS

B - BODY

C - CALM DOWN

D - DETOX

E - EXPERIENCE

F - FEEL

G - GRIEVE

H - HELP


Awareness

When you notice that your stress is much higher than the actual situation warrants, remember that you are having a flashback and that you are in no danger. You may feel as helpless, hopeless and surrounded by danger as you were in childhood, but the feelings and sensations you are experiencing are past memories that cannot hurt you now.


Body

Scan your body for the origin of feelings or disturbances. Try observing the feeling or image in your mind from a distance, as if watching a movie. This double awareness, simultaneously being here and now, while observing the emotions and memories from a distance, will help your mind reprocess the traumatic memory.


Calm down

Breathe deeply and slowly. Then feel each of your major muscle groups and softly relax them. Slow down. You are safe. Soothe your painful emotions by using bilateral stimulation (tapping on your knees alternatively), or by EFT (Emotional freedom Technique).


Detox

Stop the angry and humiliating voices in your head and replace them with nurturing positive voices. In your mind, imagine yourself as a little child you were when the trauma had happened. Speak reassuringly to your Inner Child, telling them that you love them unconditionally – that they can always come to you for comfort and protection when they feel lost and scared.


Experience

Just sit with the feeling and remember that it will pass.  Remember that you shouldn’t and needn’t do anything. This is just a memory and the danger is long gone. Remind yourself that you are in an adult body with allies, skills and resources to protect you that you never had as a child.


Feel

Observe your feelings as they start to calm down. Find a safe place to unwind and soothe yourself: wrap yourself in a blanket, hold a stuffed animal. Feel compassion for yourself as a child that had to experience such pain. Assure your Inner Child that the danger is over and that you are safe now. Stay with the experience for as long as it feels right.


Grieve

Don’t hold back your tears: they are a sign that you are getting close to the end of the process. Allow yourself to grieve. Healthy grieving can turn our tears into self-compassion and our anger into self-protection. Stay aware of the present where there is no danger, and remind yourself that you are adult now and that the feelings you experience are just memories. If you start to panic and feel that you are helpless, go back to the beginning: Awareness. Refuse to shame, hate or abandon yourself. Keep doing that until your level of stress falls back to normal.


Help

If you’re suffering from emotional flashbacks, it is safe to assume that your traumatic experience is not yet fully reprocessed.  Recovery takes time and you might have to repeat the whole process several times. Cultivate safe relationships and seek support. Practice yoga, meditation or other methods to calm you down when needed. Learn to identify the types of triggers that lead to flashbacks, and try to avoid or control the exposure to them. If you find out that you can’t manage emotional flashbacks by yourself, don’t hesitate to seek expert help. Some wounds you have from trauma may just be too much for a person to manage on your own.

 



Sanja Rozman - Nice to meet you!

Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.

that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.


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