Tag Archives: Flashbacks

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 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 alikened 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 sub-conscious / 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 as 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.



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

Failure Of Information Processing At Core Of PTSD

failure of information processing at core of PTSD

Research suggests (for examples, see below) that traumatic memories are not stored in the normal way (this theory was initially proposed by the psychologist and philosopher Pierre Janet) but non-linguistically as feelings / emotions and sensations (e.g. images, sounds, smells). This means that they cannot be properly articulated nor integrated into the individual’s personal narrative (story) in a meaningful way. This is why people frequently find trauma  extremely difficult to talk about.

Also, traumatic memories are stored in a fragmentary way (as opposed to in a way that allows them to form a coherent whole) and remain unmodified over time. 

Another feature of traumatic memories, according to Pierre Janet, is that they frequently cannot be remembered at will but are state-dependent (i.e. can only be recalled – in the form of flashbacks, for example – when the individual is in a similar state of consciousness to the one s/he was experiencing at the time of the trauma).

So, as we can see from the above, traumatic memories are not processed in the normal way and it is this lack of normal information processing that lies at the core of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One main theory related to this is that they (i.e. the traumatic memories) are prevented from being properly processed by the EXTREME LEVEL OF AROUSAL the individual feels whilst experiencing the trauma.

Supporting Evidence :

Research (Kolk and Ducey) into flashbacks (a central feature of PTSD) using neuroimaging has revealed that, when these flashbacks occur :

  • there is increased activity in areas of the right hemisphere which are involved with emotional processing
  • there is increased activity in the right visual cortex

These two findings support the theory that traumatic memories (in this case, flashbacks) are processed / stored in the form of emotions and sensations (in the case of the above research visual sensations).

Furthermore, Rauch et al (1995) conducted research showing that individuals experiencing flashbacks simultaneously experienced a decrease in activity in the part of the brain, located in the left hemisphere, called Broca’s area (a brain region involved with language) ; this finding supports the theory that traumatic memories are not stored in linguistic form.

Implications For Therapy :

The above supports the notion that effective therapy for PTSD should involve the individual afflicted by it being helped by the therapist to properly process traumatic memories so that they may be safely integrated into the person’s personal narrative.


NHS Advice On Treatments For PTSD – click here.

eBooks :

emotional abuse book   childhood trauma damages brain ebook

Above eBooks now available on Amazon for instant download. Click here for further information.

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


Trauma Triggers : Definition And Examples

 trauma triggers

Responding and Adjusting to the Effects of Trauma : Five Stages


One of the world’s leading experts on the effects of traumatic experience is the psychologist Mardi Horowitz, and it is he who proposed the five stage model of how we respond and adjust to traumatic experience. The five stages that Horowitz describes are as follows :


A) Outcry

B) Numbness and denial

C) Intrusive re-experiencing of the traumatic experience

D) Working through the traumatic experience

E) Completion


Let’s look at each of these five stages in turn :

A) Outcry : this first stage occurs in the immediate aftermath of the traumatic experience – it involves a disorganized and confused mental state in which the individual is likely to feel overwhelmed and disorientated.

B) Numbness and denial : this second stage is essentially self-protective – the brain attempts to banish thoughts and feelings related to the traumatic experience from conscious awareness leading to a state of numbness and denial. This can include psychological states known as ‘depersonalization’ (this is a sense of being cut off from, or somehow separate from, one’s real self) and ‘derealization’ (this is the sensation of being cut off from reality ; it generates the feeling the trauma was not real – as if it had just happened in a film or play : the individual finds it hard to accept the traumatic event/s did actually occur).

C) Intrusive re-experiencing : however, the above protective stage can only endure for so long until the memories start to powerfully re-assert themselves. It should also be noted that, paradoxically, the more an individual actively attempts to suppress the painful memories, the more forceful they will tend to become – this is a process called ‘rebound’ (click here for one of my articles related to this phenomenon).

Because this stage involves re-experiencing the traumatic event/s, it can be very distressing ; to reduce the power of the memories and the psychological pain that they bring, it is necessary to start to process them.

People often vascillate between stages 2 (B) and 3 (C) and it is often only possible to start assimilating what has happened into long-term memory in a slow and gradual manner, bit by bit. This assimilation process is stage 4 (D) – Horowitz referred to it as ‘working through’.

D) Working through : during this stage, which involves coming to terms with what occurred, making sense of it, understanding its meaning and implications and integrating the traumatic experiences into long-term memory, both denial and intrusive memories, together with the pain associated with the trauma, start to diminish

E) Finally, completion occurs – the previously intrusive memories become fully integrated into long-term memory and begin to lose their power to cause emotional distress.


However, sometimes the recovering individual may become stuck at a particular stage, not infrequently at stage 3 (C) – the ‘intrusive memories’ stage ; this may involve disturbing thoughts, images, flashbacks and nightmares. In such a case, appropriate therapy may be essential.

Above eBook now available for immediate download from Amazon. CLICK HERE for details.

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

Childhood Trauma Leading To Traumatic Memories.

childhood trauma and traumatic memories

Traumatic Memories

Remembering traumatic events is in some ways beneficial. For example, it allows us to review the experience and learn from it. Also, by replaying the event/s, its/their emotional charge is diminished.

However, sometimes the process breaks down and the memories remain powerful and frightening. Sometimes they seem to appear at random, and at other times they can be TRIGGERED by a particular event such as a film with a scene that shows a person suffering from a similar trauma to that suffered by the person watching it.

Traumatic memories can manifest themselves in any of the 3 ways listed below:



These are often intense, vivid and frightening. They can be difficult to control, especially at night.

Sometimes a flashback may be very detailed, but at other times it may be a more nebulous ‘sense’ of the trauma.

Sometimes the person experiencing the flashback feels that they are going mad or are about to completely lose control, but THIS IS NOT THE CASE.



These are more likely to occur when the mind is not occupied. They are more a recollection of the event rather than a reliving of it. When they do intrude, they can be painful. Often, the more we try to banish them from memory the more tenaciously they maintain their grip.


These can replay the traumatic events in a similar way to how they originally happened or occur as distorted REPRESENTATIONS of the event.


There used to be concern that some memories of trauma may be false memories. However, the latest research suggests that memories of trauma tend to be quite accurate but may be distorted or embellished.

However, false memories CAN occasionally occur. This is most likely to happen when someone we trust, such as a therapist, keeps suggesting some trauma (eg sexual abuse) must have happened.

It is important to remember, though, that parents or carers will sometimes DENY or DOWNPLAY and MINIMIZE our traumatic experiences due to a sense of their own guilt. In other words, they may claim our traumatic memories are false when in fact they are not.


Very traumatic memories may sometimes be REPRESSED (buried in the unconscious with no conscious access to them). In other words, we may forget that a trauma has happened. As I suggested in PART 1, this is a defense mechanism. Sometimes the buried memories can be brought back into consciousness (eg through psychotherapy) so that the brain may be allowed to process and work through the memories allowing a recovery process to get underway.


eBook :


Above eBook now available on Amazon for instant download : click here

Further Information:

An excellent link to read more about traumatic memories can be found by clicking here.

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