Fireworks and Independence Day are synonymous for many – the pyrotechnic displays that reverberate across the country on and around the 4th of July are often one of the most anticipated events of the holiday. Yet they can also be difficult for people who suffer from certain types of PTSD.
Loud noises, bright flashes and the pungent smell of gunpowder that accompany fireworks can be a trigger for people who have served in the military, are war refugees, have participated in protests or have survived a natural disaster, to name a few of the groups. who can fight this weekend. For some, these airbursts can trigger a whole-body reaction, ranging from heightened anxiety to complete dissociation and hallucinations.
This does not mean that someone with PTSD cannot or will not be able to enjoy life during fireworks season. After all, avoiding the ubiquitous pyrotechnics isn’t a long-term solution. What will make things easier is if they and those around them take a few extra steps to make sure the long weekend is more enjoyable than not.
What to do if you have PTSD
According to Rani Hoff, a professor of psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine who works with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention, if you personally suffer from PTSD from fireworks, it there are several things you can try.
Hoff also recommends checking out the National Center for PTSD website, which has a wealth of information for the public, including screening questions you can take to your doctor if you think you might have undiagnosed PTSD.
During the lead up to fireworks season, if you are going for therapy, see your doctor or therapist and discuss your concerns. They are trained professionals and should be able to help you. If you’re on medication, be sure to use it as prescribed — don’t take less of it, and don’t try to preemptively deal with the possibility of a trigger by taking more, Hoff says.
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Try to approach fireworks season relaxed, Hoff says. If you have habitual practices such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, running or working out, she suggests trying to fit them into your days as they can help release tension.
You can also try practicing deep breathing. “The simple act of five slow, deep breaths will do wonders for calming down, and you don’t need any gimmicks or fancy instructions,” says Hoff. Other useful grounding techniques include the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise: in your head, list five things you can see, four things you can hear, three things you can feel, two that you can feel and a positive thought. , she explains.
To be realistic
“Know your limits and adjust accordingly,” says Hoff. Some people will want to take time off from the show and stay home. Others will hang out with their friends, but still have to distance themselves or leave early when explosions fill the sky – think about how you want to manage your fireworks exposure and be true to that.
Mitigate your triggers
Just because you want to see fireworks doesn’t mean you can’t dim your exposure. Consider finding a place where you can see the bursts of air, but they’re not as close or loud, if you think that would reduce your anxiety, Hoff says. Or do your best to minimize triggers and increase your coping aids: close windows and doors, wear noise-canceling headphones or earplugs, Hoff says.
Use healthy coping mechanisms
It may be tempting to drink alcohol or use other mood-altering substances to relax. But these coping mechanisms aren’t helpful in the long run and can actually cause more harm than good. Look for coping strategies that have positive long-term effects, not just short-term ones. “Engaging in activities such as writing, journaling, painting, drawing, and hobbies like building a model, cooking, playing an instrument, gardening, dancing…can useful for some as positive coping activities,” says Eugenia Weiss. , social worker, psychologist and professor of social work at the University of Southern California.
Even a simple phone call can be a positive coping mechanism — Weiss specifically recommends making a list of friends and family members you can call during the day for emotional support.
Heck, maybe just hang out with your dog in the tub. “Having a friendly animal in a safe space can be just the ticket, and if you calm your dog down, you might get a little distracted from your own anxiety,” says Hoff.
Have an exit strategy
Make sure you know what to do if you want to get away from the fireworks, and communicate that plan to at least one other person you’ll be with so they can help explain the situation to others, Hoff says. “If you’ve reached your limit, do whatever it takes to feel safer — come in the house, call a Lyft, get in the car — if you’re sober — and pick people up later,” Hoff says. “Plan the strategy in advance so you don’t start panicking because you don’t know what to do in the moment.”
What to do if someone you know has PTSD
If someone you know is suffering from PTSD from fireworks, you’ll want to be there for them any way you can, says Tim Black, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Victoria who specializes in military trauma. and civilians.
“As you’d expect, there are no easy or simple tricks that friends or family should try,” Black says. “Because PTSD symptoms are complex and can be unpredictable, small tricks can – and often will – backfire.” You can help by asking your loved one how much they want to participate in the fireworks festivities, listening to them without judgment even if you cannot fully understand their needs, and respecting and supporting their choices. as to how much or how little they want to do, says Black. Let them take the lead.
It can be difficult for someone with PTSD to work up the courage to speak up or go out of their way to ask for help or changes to plans. But you can also help before the fireworks start. Consider asking neighbors or people in the neighborhood if they plan to have fireworks, when and where to help your loved one plan accordingly.
Keep an eye out for symptoms that develop, Hoff says. “You probably don’t need to get high, but if you see any signs of anxiety, you can check in, ask how they’re doing and if they want to leave.”
Try not to assume anything, Black said. Some people with PTSD may or may not want to participate. “They can also change their minds in the middle of the celebrations and want to leave,” says Black. “Being flexible with your expectations of your loved one with PTSD will most likely be seen as helpful.”
Don’t underestimate the situation
Don’t minimize, deny or be ashamed, Hoff says. Avoid using phrases such as “It’s just a few fireworks, what’s the matter?”, “You’re just making excuses, there’s nothing wrong with you”, “Why not haven’t you finished already, that was 10 years ago?” , and “Stop being a [derogatory term that implies weakness or cowardice].” Hoff also says you shouldn’t make jokes about the situation. “You might think you’re relaxing the mood, but that’s not funny.”
Try to connect
“Replace a migraine with PTSD. If a family member had a migraine in the middle of fireworks, how would you react? Hoff said. This can help demystify your response strategy and make it easier for you to understand what they’re dealing with.
[Related: Lucid dreaming may help treat PTSD. VR can make that happen.]
If you feel like you’re not the right person to help someone during a panic or a moment of distress, delegate. There’s nothing wrong with not having the tools to handle a tough situation, as long as you’re honest about it. Try to find someone who can give your loved one the support they need.
Have a designated driver
It may sound superficial, says Hoff, but if fireworks go off all around and someone with PTSD tries to get to a safe space, they may have trouble driving safely. “In particular, veterans of the conflicts in the Middle East, who may have been victims of roadside bombs, may find it very difficult to drive safely and that can make matters worse,” she says.
Don’t forget to take care of yourself too
When the situation has calmed down and your loved one has what they need, check in with yourself. “Having a family member with PTSD can be very stressful and distressing,” says Hoff. “Seek help from your trusted social circle, support group, clergy, counselor or doctor if your health is suffering.”
And as always, if you or someone you know is going through a crisis or feeling suicidal, contact the National Suicide Hotline or Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273 -8255. Phone, SMS and chat options are available 24/7.