Let’s look at what each of these experiences is and where they come from. Then we will compare & contrast them.
A flashback is an experience where you relive events of trauma. Flashbacks are only found in those with PTSD & C-PTSD. It includes feeling sensations that were experienced during the traumatic event. These sensations can be visual, emotional, auditory, smell, tactile feelings, tastes and any other feeling that happened during trauma.
Another key point is that flashbacks are memories. Flashbacks are memories that were not fully processed and encoded in the proper sections of the brain. The memory is not what is called autobiographical, meaning it can be choppy, disconnected and you can not put them in context. This means when you recall traumatic memories your mind and body believe the event is happening again right now. This is why they are so disruptive to daily life and why you can’t just snap out of it.
Read More: Symptom Explainers: Flashbacks
Intrusive thoughts are unwanted, cognitively disruptive and emotionally disruptive thoughts. Intrusive thoughts are characteristics of anxiety disorders, also found in mood disorders & trauma disorders. Intrusive thoughts are usually thoughts about actions, scenarios or fears the person finds upsetting. Common topics include inappropriate sexual acts, acts violence, harm to children & family, death, suicide, disasters and ones based on religion (like going to hell). Intrusive thoughts don’t have to be realistic at all or based on an event that happened to the person.
Intrusive thoughts generally start as normal transit random thoughts. Not all random or weird thoughts are intrusive as stated above they have to disrupt the normal cognitive process and cause emotional distress. Random thoughts become intrusive based on your emotional reaction to them, and when you dwell on the thoughts. This does not mean they’re your fault, what it does mean is the way the brain reacts changes how they pass through your consciousness making them stick and the emotional reaction grows the more anxious you become. It becomes a vicious cycle of thinking, reacting, ruminating and then increased episode of thinking about it. Ruminating on making yourself stop plays into this as well.
Intrusive thoughts can be a thought without a strong visual or can be an intense moment of a visual like seeing a burned down house or whatever your thoughts relate to.
Intrusive thoughts are not impulses as intrusive thoughts do not always incite or actions or are even things you could do. Along with that, they are related to overthinking and trying to control situations not losing impulsive control. They can influence compulsive behaviours.
Intrusive thoughts are often related to obsessive thought patterns but are not entirely the same as some intrusive thoughts are abrupt experiences where obsessive thoughts last for a long period of times.
Obsessive and compulsive behaviour are linked and can include intrusive thoughts but all are different. Impulsive thoughts and actions don’t generally include long term ruminations and tend to be more related to a thing you could do right now. Obsessive thoughts can eventually lead to impulses.
Compare and contrast Flashbacks & Intrusive thoughts:
- Both can mimic an auditory hallucination. Though intrusive thoughts are much easier as they are not a true mimic of sensory input.
- Both can be mistaken visual hallucinations. Flashbacks more so as you are experiencing the visual input as if it is happening right now.
- Intrusive thoughts and flashbacks can co-occur with each other and many other symptoms like hallucinations.
- Both can trigger panic symptoms, emotional flooding and feelings of confusion
- Both are symptoms of PTSD/C-PTSD.
- Trauma is required for flashbacks and trauma can happen but is not required to experience trauma
- Flashbacks are memories and intrusive thoughts are thoughts. Intrusive thoughts can never have happened or could even be impossible. Where the flashbacks have to have happened, though they can be remembered in a disjointed and dissociative manner.
- Flashbacks are a re-experiencing symptom are based on what you experienced during the traumatic episode occurred, the emotions/visuals, etc had to have happened during trauma. Intrusive thoughts cause emotional reactions to the thought (disgust, fear) and physical reactions to stress like nausea or sweating. Unlike flashbacks, it is not a copy of the emotions from trauma.
- Intrusive thoughts are disruptive and can consume thoughts. However they don’t hijack the entire brain and nervous system like a flashback, intrusive thoughts don’t cause episodes where you completely lose touch and believe something from the past is right now. The only time intrusive thoughts cause a complete disruption would be if it triggers panic attacks or flashbacks afterward.
- Intrusive thoughts are also, well thoughts, and don’t cause the body to completely act like you are in trauma. Meaning it reacts as stress and doesn’t include the wider emotional and physical range flashbacks can have.
How to Know What You’re Experiencing:
- Does it cause a complete break from your current reality? Flashbacks are way more likely as flashbacks mess with the ability to place yourself in time and space.
- Do you experience emotional regression? Feeling like your a little kid likely flashbacks and implicit memories.
- Behavior regression where you repeat patterns of childlike or past behavior is likely a flashback and implicit memories.
- if it causes physical (somatic) symptoms outside of just panic symptoms, are there distinct visuals/noises/smells and not just something that feels like a thought but worse. Those are more related to flashbacks
- Are “you” the one in the image. Flashbacks can sometimes be experienced as if you are dissociated above, but you will still be involved and the body will still react. Intrusive thoughts don’t require you to be the one being hurt( or in theory doing the hurting)
- Does the ” you ” in the image younger around the age trauma likely happen or is the contemporary you? (this doesn’t apply if you are still in an abusive situation)
- Is the experience related to a compulsion you experience? intrusive thoughts are more likely to connect to compulsions and obsessions.
- Is it one thought or image on repeat or are there varied but connected memories? Varied and disjointed memories are flashbacks where are one repeating thought is more likely to be an intrusive thought and rumination.
- Intrusive thoughts are often related to compulsions and rumination.
Hope this helps,