How Fireworks Can Trigger PTSD
You may see the signs popping up around your neighborhood this July 4—red, white and blue notices that indicate the home of a vet with the request to “Please be courteous with fireworks.”
The signs are the work of a Facebook-launched nonprofit, Military With PTSD, begun by Shawn Gourley, whose husband, Justin, served in the Navy for four years and returned with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sudden and loud noises can trigger episodes of PTSD, bringing veterans back to traumatic experiences they have lived through during their service. According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, up to 20% of military personnel who served in Iraq or Afghanistan experience PTSD each year.
The signs are posted on the lawns of veterans’ homes to alert people to be more considerate when setting off fireworks in the area. According to Gourley, who spoke to CNN, the group has mailed 2,500 signs, some of which were paid for by donations and others by the vets themselves, while 3,000 people remain on a waiting list.
The signs are not meant to quash any Fourth of July celebrations, but to raise awareness that the explosive sounds, flashes of light and smell of powder may trigger unwelcome memories for some. “If you are a veteran, on the one hand July 4th should be one of the most patriotic holidays that you feel a part of,” says Dr. John Markowitz, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. “On the other hand, the rockets’ red glare and the bombs bursting in air are likely to evoke traumatic memories, and you might want to hide. It’s a tricky one.”
Having advanced knowledge of a fireworks display can help some people with PTSD to better prepare and cope with any symptoms they may experience. “A big component of the startle response and PTSD is the unexpected,” says Rachel Tester, program director of the Law Enforcement, Active Duty, Emergency Responder (LEADER) Program at Harvard Medical School’s McLean Hospital. “When people are able to anticipate, they are able to put into place mechanisms they have to cope ahead of time.”
That might include things such as relaxation techniques or being able to see the fireworks show and therefore know that they’re coming, as well as having headphones, music or other distractions at the ready.
Such strategies may not work for every PTSD patient, but being more aware that the explosive celebrations of the holiday might affect those with PTSD is an important step toward ensuring that everyone can enjoy the holiday without fear, anxiety or pain.
By ALICE PARK