After a trauma occurs most people will typically experience repeated thoughts about the incident. Sometimes it will feel as though the memory pops into your mind without you even deliberately thinking about it. You can also experience dreams or nightmares about the event. Waking drenched in sweat or being told that you were tossing and turning all night is also an indication that you were probably having nightmares about the event. All of these experiences are called intrusions or intrusive symptoms.
Many people will have fragments of the traumatic memory flash into their minds and they might call them a flashback. However, a true flashback is when you feel as though you are back reliving the event as though it is happening right now. This is actually a dissociative symptom and the person is disconnected from reality.
Many people re-experience the trauma through intrusive thoughts, some have flashbacks and many have nightmares. Some people will experience a combination of all of these and others might just have one type. Everyone responds in different ways.
Trauma memories are thought to be stored as fragmented pieces throughout the mind, perhaps as a way of buffering the overwhelming emotions associated with what happened. It is believed that repeatedly thinking about the event will help the mind understand what happened and eventually process it. Over time, it seems the memory becomes more integrated and most people can then move on with their lives. At this point, people describe the event as a distant memory in the past.
If intrusive symptoms do not subside after a period of time, then this would be considered as one symptom of the trauma being unresolved or possibly one sign of PTSD (there are a cluster of symptoms that make up PTSD).
Trauma memories that do not subside and keep taking over your mind can make you feel as though you are trapped in the past and reliving all the distress you felt at the time.
The impact of intrusive thinking
Intrusive symptoms are often described by people as the most distressing part of the post trauma experience. They create significant fear and interfere with daily living. As a result, people report having difficulty relaxing, working, sleeping or simply being in relationships with others. It is very distracting to be frequently drawn back to thinking about a traumatic time in the past.
How do I deal with repeatedly thinking about the event?
Many people are so overwhelmed by these symptoms that they try to push them out of their mind and will do anything to distract themselves from thinking about it. Unfortunately, this method of alleviating distress in the short term, means that the brain is not getting the chance to process and make sense of the trauma. Therefore, over the longer term these thoughts or intrusions will keep coming back.
Firstly, it is important to remember that your brain is trying to process what happened – little bit by little bit – it is not trying to scare you. Your mind is trying to make sense of what happened and make sure that you are safe and ready to deal with any other problems that come your way.
The treatment that shows the best evidence for reducing intrusions is Trauma focused – CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy). This treatment will help you go through your memory in a systematic and safe way. Once you go through the memory in great detail, often repeatedly, then the trauma thoughts start to slow down and the memory takes it’s place as a memory of the past, rather than something that is a threat in the present.