What Is The Difference Between Flashbacks And Intrusive Memories?



If, as adults, we are suffering from complex posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of our childhood experiences we may, in the absence of effective therapy, be very prone to experiencing both distressing intrusive memories and frightening flashbacks. But what is the actual difference between intrusive memories and flashbacks? I briefly explain this difference below:


Intrusive memories enter conscious awareness against the individual’s will (often, the person experiencing them will try to block them out‘) and are very similar to the original traumatic event that is being recalled; however, the individual having these memories is aware they are, indeed, just that – i.e. memories/recollections – and that the incident being recalled is NOT actually happening in the ‘here and now.’ However, they can still be extremely distressing and may produce unpleasant physiological symptoms such as rapid, shallow breathing (hyperventilation) and increased heart rate.


In contrast, when an individual has a flashback s/he re-experiences the traumatic event as if it IS actually happening in the present. FLASHBACKS seem so real because sensory information (which can include sights, sounds, smells, tastes and tactile information) that has been stored in memory (albeit in an only partially processed and fragmented way) can be replayed in the mind extremely vividly; to the person having the flashback, it is as if s/he is reliving aspects/fragments of the original trauma all over again and this can be quite terrifying.


Meichenbaum (1994), who likened flashbacks to ‘waking nightmares‘, identified three typical stages that the flashback experience can be broken down into. The three stages are as follows :


Let’s briefly look at each of these in turn :


Triggers can include anything perceived by the five senses (vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch), thoughts, events, incidents etc that have something in common with the original, traumatic event. Triggers may remind one of such events on either a conscious or unconscious level. If the flashback is initiated by a subconscious / unconscious trigger then, disturbingly, the flashback may seem to ‘come out of nowhere.’


This is the stage during which the (potentially terrifying) experience of ‘reliving’ the original trauma in one’s mind occurs. This stage can include the illusion of ‘seeing’, ‘hearing’, or, even, ‘smelling’, ‘tasting’ or ‘physically feeling’ things that occurred at the time of the original trauma. Indeed, as already alluded to, it feels to the individual as if s/he is going through the trauma all over again, in the PRESENT, even though his/her rational mind may be aware, on another level, that this is illogical; the confusion that comes about, as a result, can torment person experiencing the flashback further by inducing in him/her the fear that s/he is ‘going mad.’

Frequently, too, this stage involves considerably increased physiological arousal (racing heart, sweating etc.).

Furthermore, during this second phase, one may become very emotionally dysregulated (e.g. one may become deeply distressed or extremely angry).


After the experience of reliving the original trauma has passed, physiological arousal (such as increased heart rate etc.) may still be high but gradually abates. Because one enters a dissociative state during the flashback, once it is over the individual is likely to feel highly confused and disoriented.

Despite the highly disturbing nature of flashbacks, it is important to remember that they are the brain’s way of trying to process / ‘make sense of’ one’s, as yet not fully processed, traumatic memories and ‘heal itself’ from the deep, psychic wound incurred from the experiencing of the original trauma.




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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).

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