Handling flashbacks and separations in PTSD

Many people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are struggling to cope with flashbacks and separations, which may occur as a result of encountering triggers, reminders of traumatic events.

Without people aware of their triggers, flashbacks and separations can be incredibly destructive and unpredictable events that are difficult to manage. However, you can take steps to better manage and prevent flashbacks and separations, and stay in the moment.

Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, VigorTip

Understanding flashback

Flashback is considered to be one of the re-experience symptoms of PTSD. In a flashback, you may feel or act as if the traumatic event has happened again.The flashback may be temporary, you may maintain a certain connection with the present, or you may lose all awareness of what is happening around you and completely return to your traumatic event.

For example, a rape survivor may begin to smell certain smells or feel physical pain when triggered, similar to what she experienced when she was attacked.

Understand dissociation

People with PTSD may also experience separation.Separation is an experience in which you may feel disconnected from yourself and/or your surroundings.

Similar to flashbacks, the range of dissociation can range from temporarily losing contact with what is happening around you, a bit like what happens when you are daydreaming, to having no memory for a long time and/or feeling as if you are outside of your body.

Know your triggers

When dealing with flashbacks and separations, prevention is the key. Flashbacks and separations are usually triggered or prompted by reminders of certain traumatic events, for example, encountering certain people, or going to specific places, or other stressful experiences.Therefore, it is important to determine the specific things that trigger the flashback or separation.

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By understanding what triggers are, you can try to limit exposure to these triggers, or, if it’s not possible (which is usually the case), you can prepare for them by designing responses to these triggers. In addition to reducing Flashbacks and separations, and knowing your triggers may also help alleviate other symptoms of PTSD, such as intrusive thoughts and memories of traumatic events.

Identify early warning signs

Flashbacks and separations may feel as if they have appeared suddenly, and they may feel unpredictable and uncontrollable. However, there are usually some early signs that you might be stuck in a flashback or separation.

For example, your surroundings may start to become blurred, or you may feel as if you are separating or losing contact with your surroundings, other people, or even yourself. If you can detect flashbacks and separations early, it will be easier to deal with and prevent them. Therefore, it is important to work hard to raise your awareness of their early symptoms.

Next time you experience an episode, re-examine your feelings and thoughts before the flashback or separation occurred. Try to identify as many early symptoms as possible. The more early warning signs you can think of, the better you will be able to prevent future attacks.

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Learn grounding techniques

As the name suggests, grounding is a special way of coping, designed to make you “grounded” in the moment. By doing so, you can stay in touch with the present and reduce the possibility of you falling into a flashback or separation. In this way, grounding can be considered very similar to mindfulness.

To use the grounding technique, you need to use five senses (sound, touch, smell, taste, and sight).To establish a connection with the here and now, do something that keeps you engrossed in the present moment.

Here are some grounding techniques you can try:

  • Sight: Take inventory of everything around you. Connect with the present moment by listing everything around you. Identify all the colors you see. Count all the furniture around you. List all the noises you hear. Taking an inventory of your immediate environment can directly connect you to the present.
  • Smell: Smell some rich mint flavor. When you smell a strong smell, it is difficult to focus on anything else. In this way, the smell of mint can bring you into the present, slow down or completely stop the flashback or separation plot.
  • Sound: Turn on loud music. Loud, harsh music will be hard to ignore. As a result, your attention will be directed to that noise, bringing you into the present moment.
  • Taste: A bite of lemon. The sour taste of lemon and the strong sensation it produces in your mouth when you bite it will force you to stay in the moment.
  • Touch: Grab a piece of ice. If you notice that you are falling into a flashback or separation state, grab a piece of ice. It is difficult to divert your attention from the extreme coldness of the ice, forcing you to keep in touch with the present moment.

Seek help from others

If you know that you may be at risk of flashback or separation due to a situation, please bring some trusted support.Make sure that the people traveling with you also know your triggers and know how to judge and what to do when you enter a flashback or separation state.

Seek treatment

Finally, the best way to prevent flashbacks and separations is to seek treatment for your PTSD. Flashbacks and separations may indicate that you are struggling to face or cope with the traumatic event you have experienced. Treatment can help solve this problem.

You can find PTSD treatment providers in your area through the American Anxiety Association website and UCompare HealthCare.

The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Separation (ISSTD) also provides a wealth of information about the connection between trauma and separation, how to deal with separation, and provides links to therapists who treat trauma and separation.

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