Coping With Flashbacks and Dissociation in PTSD

Many people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) struggle in coping with flashbacks and dissociation, which may occur as a result of encountering triggers, that is, reminders of a traumatic event.

Flashbacks and dissociation can be incredibly disruptive and unpredictable events that are difficult to manage. This is particularly true when people are not aware of their triggers. However, you can take steps to better manage and prevent flashbacks and dissociation and stay in the present.

Using sense to cope with flashbacks
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell 

Understanding Flashbacks

Flashbacks are considered one of the re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD. In a flashback, you may feel or act as though a traumatic event is happening again.

Flashback Definition:

A flashback is a symptom that can occur as part of PTSD and involves vividly re-experiencing a traumatic event. These episodes may occur suddenly and unexpectedly in response to a trigger that reminds you of the trauma.

A flashback may be temporary and you may maintain some connection with the present moment or you may lose all awareness of what's going on around you, being taken completely back to your traumatic event.

For example, a rape survivor, when triggered, may begin to smell certain scents or feel pain similar to that which was experienced during the assault.

Understanding Dissociation

People with PTSD may also experience dissociation. Dissociation is an experience where you may feel disconnected from yourself and/or your surroundings.

Similar to flashbacks, dissociation may range from temporarily losing touch with things that are going on around you, kind of like what happens when you daydream, to having no memories for a prolonged period of time and/or feeling as though you are outside of your body.

Know Your Triggers

In order to cope with flashbacks and dissociation, prevention is key. Flashbacks and dissociation are often triggered or cued by some kind of reminder of a traumatic event. For example, encountering certain people, going to specific places, or some other stressful experience may trigger a flashback.

By knowing what your triggers are, you can either try to limit your exposure to those triggers or, if that isn't possible (which is often the case), you can prepare for them by devising ways to cope with your reaction to those triggers.

In addition to reducing flashbacks and dissociation, knowing your triggers may also help with other symptoms of PTSD, such as intrusive thoughts and memories of a traumatic event.

Identify Early Warning Signs

Flashbacks and dissociation may feel as though they come out of the blue and they may feel unpredictable and uncontrollable. However, there are often some early signs that you may be slipping into a flashback or a dissociative state.

For example, your surroundings may begin to look fuzzy or you may feel as though you're separating from or losing touch with your surroundings, other people, or even yourself. Flashbacks and dissociation are easier to cope with and prevent if you can catch them early on. Therefore, it's important to try to increase your awareness of their early symptoms.

Next time you experience an episode, revisit what you were feeling and thinking just before the flashback or dissociation occurred. Try to identify as many early symptoms as possible. The more ​early warning signs you can come up with, the better able you will be to prevent future episodes.

Learn Grounding Techniques

As the name implies, grounding is a particular way of coping that is designed to "ground" you in the present moment. In doing so, you can retain your connection with the present moment and reduce the likelihood that you slip into a flashback or dissociation. In this way, grounding may be considered to be very similar to mindfulness.

To use grounding techniques, you want to use the five senses (sound, touch, smell, taste, and sight). To connect with the here and now, do something that will bring all your attention to the present moment.

Here are a few grounding techniques you can try:

  • Sight: Take an inventory of everything around you. Connect with the present moment by listing everything around you. Identify all the colors you see. Count all the pieces of furniture around you. List off all the noises you hear. Taking an inventory of your immediate environment can directly connect you with the present moment.
  • Smell: Sniff some strong peppermint. When you smell something strong, it's very hard to focus on anything else. In this way, smelling peppermint can bring you into the present moment, slowing down or stopping altogether a flashback or an episode of dissociation.
  • Sound: Turn on loud music. Loud, jarring music will be hard to ignore. And as a result, your attention will be directed to that noise, bringing you into the present moment.
  • Taste: Bite into a lemon. The sourness of a lemon and the strong sensation it produces in your mouth when you bite into it can force you to stay in the present moment.
  • Touch: Grip a piece of ice. If you notice that you're slipping into a flashback or a dissociative state, hold onto a piece of ice. It will be difficult to direct your attention away from the extreme coldness of the ice, forcing you to stay in touch with the present moment.

Enlist the Help of Others

If you know that you may be at risk for a flashback or dissociation by going into a certain situation, bring along some trusted support. Make sure that the person you bring with you is also aware of your triggers and knows how to tell and what to do when you are entering a flashback or dissociative state.

Research suggests that PTSD reduces social support resources, but that having strong social support helps butter against the impact of the condition. Reaching out for help and building your support network are essential when dealing with trauma-related symptoms.

Seek Treatment

In the end, the best way to prevent flashbacks and dissociation is to seek out treatment for your PTSD. Flashbacks and dissociation may be a sign that you are struggling to confront or cope with the traumatic event you experienced. Treatment can help with this.


There are several different types of psychotherapy that can be helpful for treating PTSD and reducing symptoms of flashbacks and dissociation. Some of these include:

You can find PTSD treatment providers in your area through the Anxiety Disorder Association of America website, as well as UCompare HealthCare.


There are no FDA-approved medications specifically for the treatment of flashbacks or dissociation. However, some medications may be prescribed to help people manage different symptoms of PTSD. These include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) such as Zoloft (sertraline), Prozac (fluoxetine), and Paxil (paroxetine)
  • Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs) such as Effexor (venlafaxine)

Resources That Can Help

The International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation (ISSTD) also provides a wealth of information on the connection between trauma and dissociation, how to cope with dissociation, and provides links to therapists who treat trauma and dissociation.

A Word From Verywell

Flashbacks and dissociation can be disruptive and distressing, but there are steps that you can take to help cope with these troubling symptoms of PTSD. Understanding your triggers can help. Working with a mental health professional can also help you learn new coping strategies and process the thought and emotions related to the traumatic experiences.

If you or a loved one are struggling with PTSD, contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) National Helpline at 1-800-662-4357 for information on support and treatment facilities in your area. 

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you deal with PTSD flashbacks?

    If you are experiencing a flashback, work on grounding yourself in the moment. Remind yourself that you are safe and focus your attention on your senses. The 5-4-3-2-1 coping technique, which involves practicing deep breathing while progressively focusing on a sight, feeling, sound, scent, and taste, can also be an effective grounding strategy.

  • What are flashbacks like?

    While the experience can vary for each individual, for many, it feels like living through the traumatic experience all over again. It's much more than a memory—it also involves feeling the same feelings and sensations that were experienced during the trauma itself. A person who is having a flashback may have thoughts, feelings, sensations, perceptions, and physical reactions that feel all too real.

  • How do you stop flashbacks?

    If you are able to recognize that you are having a flashback, you may be able to take steps to stop it. Remind yourself that what you are feeling is a flashback and that the trauma is over. Practice deep breathing and ground yourself by focusing on your senses. Think about things that would help you to feel safer in the moment and take steps to make yourself feel more secure.

  • How do you prevent flashbacks?

    Understanding your triggers and learning to spot the early warning signs of a flashback can be helpful for preventing them. Having a plan in place for what you can do to feel safer and stay in the moment is essential. Talking to a mental health professional and learning new coping strategies can also be useful for preventing future flashbacks.

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12 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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Additional Reading
  • Linehan MM. DBT Skills Training Manual. 2nd ed. New York, NY: The Guilford Press; 2015.