Fireworks and PTSD

Fireworks come with the Fourth of July just like red, white, and blue decorations — but for some people, such as military veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, they don’t have the same festive associations.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, also known as PTSD, is a psychological disorder that affects as many as 8 million Americans, many of them veterans; it causes patients to suffer emotional flashbacks to traumatic experiences, usually triggered by sensory stimuli like sights, smells, and sounds. For those who have served in a war (such as an estimated 30% of Vietnam veterans and as much as 20% of Afghanistan and Iraq vets), popping or explosive noises can be especially problematic. To you, they sound like a summer party; to someone with PTSD, they may sound like gunshots, fire, or something similar. Because of this, fireworks displays — even the small one you may be planning for your backyard party — can be a source of anxiety for veterans, and even trigger a flashback.

Except in the most severe cases, it’s rare that someone with PTSD would react violently to the trigger of fireworks or sparklers; rather, it would probably more painful for them, because they would be re-living an extremely difficult memory.

More attention has been drawn to this issue in the last two years, since a veteran posted a photo online of his lawn sign requesting courtesy from his neighbors on Independence Day. PTSD is difficult to treat and live with, but courtesy and awareness can go a long way: if you’re planning to set off fireworks and you know you have a veteran living nearby, it can be helpful to simply let them know ahead of time. Unexpected exposure to triggers is much more problematic for sufferers than anticipated exposure, so knowing that they may run into those noises and lights can help them prepare. There’s no reason to feel like you have to tamp down your patriotism, and you may not be able to prevent an unpleasant emotional response entirely, but giving a heads-up can help prevent and reduce anxiety.


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