What are flashbacks and intrusive thoughts? And how can counseling help?

Having flashbacks and intrusive thoughts is common among people who’ve experienced trauma. When this happens, people re-experience a past traumatic event, and the event is so vivid that they feel like the trauma is happening again. Not only traumatic experiences, but unwanted thoughts can also pop up in your mind when you haven’t fully processed the trauma and still suffer from its consequences. These thoughts are repetitive, disturbing, and emotionally distressing.

When this happens, people might develop severe mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress, emotional distress, or sleep disturbances. Fortunately, counseling can help. Professional counselors can help individuals with flashbacks or intrusive thoughts to reduce the impact of trauma and relieve its negative outcomes.

In this blog, we’ll define flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, explore their causes and give you some tips to deal with these conditions. We’ll also discuss why counseling is important.

What is a Flashback?

A flashback can be defined as a vivid re-experience of a past traumatic event that happens unexpectedly. According to the American Psychological Association (APA) flashback is a “spontaneous recurrence of the perceptual distortions and disorientation to time and place”. These memories can be triggered by words, sounds, smells, and most frequently, by the scenes of the traumatic event. However, often it happens suddenly without having any specific trigger.

Flashbacks are usually associated with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In fact, the DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) considers flashbacks or dissociative reactions among the symptoms of PTSD. Surprisingly, some people experience flashbacks even several months or years after the traumatic event occurred.

Flashbacks that aren’t connected to trauma don’t last for long and can disappear without particular treatment. For example, they can disappear in a few seconds. But sometimes they continue for hours or even days. And that’s when you should start thinking about receiving professional help. Otherwise, flashbacks might cause distress, anxiety, and more serious mental health conditions.

What are Intrusive Thoughts?

Intrusive thoughts are negative, unwanted thoughts that suddenly appear in our minds without even realizing it. Usually, these thoughts are repetitive and feel like they’re stuck in our minds. As a result, we find it hard to deal with them and experience distress, anger, or sadness.

Similar to flashbacks, intrusive thoughts can also be associated with PTSD. However, while flashbacks are usually related to traumatic events, intrusive thoughts can be associated with different conditions too, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) or eating disorders.

Another difference between flashbacks and intrusive thoughts is that intrusive thoughts don’t have any meaning in our lives. While flashbacks are related to trauma, intrusive thoughts are just thoughts. However, once a person associates these thoughts with a certain belief, they might become intrusive and lead to various types of anxiety disorders.

Although intrusive thoughts seem frightening at first glance, and people often associate them with mental disorders, in fact, these sorts of thoughts are very common in the normal population too. In fact, according to a Concordia University study (2014), about 94% of people have had unwanted or intrusive thoughts throughout their lives. And what’s more, they experience it more than just once.

Causes of Flashbacks and Intrusive Thoughts

Both flashbacks and intrusive thoughts can occur randomly, without any obvious reason. However, researchers have examined these conditions and found certain factors that might cause flashbacks or intrusive thoughts. In fact, a 2016 study discovered the possible cause of flashbacks and showed that traumatic events have opposite effects on the amygdala and the hippocampus, two different parts of the brain. While the amygdala takes part in the process of refining emotions, the hippocampus stores new memories in our brains (Bisby et al., 2016).

The brain imaging study demonstrated that these two parts of the brain are automatically activated when flashbacks happen. Considering this, the findings suggest that trauma-related therapies should focus on changing contextual associations for the stressful event that causes flashbacks.

Usually, flashbacks and intrusive thoughts can be triggered by various types of sensory channels, including smell, touch, taste, hearing, or sight. For instance, when an individual who has experienced trauma in the past hears a sound that reminds them of trauma, this sound may trigger flashbacks or intrusive thoughts.

Just like flashbacks, intuitive thoughts can be a sign of an underlying mental health condition such as PTSD. But also, intrusive thoughts happen in the cases of other types of health issues such as Parkinson’s disease, brain injury, or dementia. And when these conditions are left without proper treatment, the intensity and impact of intrusive thoughts can worsen.

How can Counseling Help?

It turns out that counseling is a scientifically proven way to deal with flashbacks and intrusive thoughts. A number of studies show the effectiveness of trauma-focused therapies in the process of reducing the impact of PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks (e.g., Fictorie et al., 2022; Brewin, 2015).

Counselors at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids use highly effective methods of treatment that help patients recover from trauma and work with flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or other trauma-related issues. Our counselors use a holistic approach in order to help individuals regardless of the underlying reasons for their flashbacks and intrusive thoughts. Nevertheless, the process of counseling starts with identifying the problem and developing an efficient plan for dealing with it.

Some of the most common types of therapy that help are the following:

  • Trauma-focused cognitive-behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) – It’s a specific form of CBT designed for adults and children who have been impacted by trauma. The purpose of this therapy is to help patients recognize their negative emotions, restructure intrusive thoughts, and manage them.
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) – This treatment is an integrative psychotherapy method that involves rhythmic eye movements in order to reduce the effect of emotionally charged memories. During the process of EMDR therapy, counselors stimulate eye movement while discussing the trauma with the patient.
  • Trauma-informed counseling – Another efficient counseling method for dealing with flashbacks and intrusive thoughts is trauma-informed counseling. This type of therapy aims to help clients understand the origins of their flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, or other symptoms related to trauma and develop a plan for activities to help them regulate their emotional and mental health.

In any case, counselors play significant roles in PTSD treatment and help individuals reprocess their trauma and reduce the impact of flashbacks and intrusive thoughts on their daily lives.

Final Thoughts

If you or someone around you experiences recurring flashbacks and intrusive thoughts that don’t let you function properly on a daily basis, receiving professional counseling can be the best possible way to get over your problem. Counselors at Health for Life Counseling in Grand Rapids, MI can help you cope with flashbacks and overcome intrusive thoughts. Reach out to our team in West Michigan to learn more about trauma-focused treatments and start your journey towards a better and healthier life.

Learn more about the Trauma-Informed Counseling Center of Grand Rapids

Learn more about Counseling and Therapy services at Health for Life Counseling Grand Rapids

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