Managing PTSD during fireworks season

While fireworks season can be an exciting time for many, this time of year can be really difficult for people with PTSD. Fireworks displays can be beautiful to look at, but the loud noises they create can be triggering if someone has trauma from an experience in their past. It's important we don't forget about people with PTSD during fireworks season. It's also important that those struggling know where to turn for support.

What is PTSD and who might suffer?

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder. It is caused by very stressful or frightening life events that have a long-term impact on someone's life. It is mostly the result of severe trauma, such as a life-threatening accident, rape, assault, witnessing a murder, etc. However, PTSD can develop following other distressing occurrences.

It is estimated that approximately one third of individuals who experience a severe traumatic event will develop (PTSD). A very common belief is that PTSD only affects military veterans. While PTSD is common in those who have served in the armed forces, it's a misconception that they are the only ones diagnosed with PTSD.

For example, studies have found that PTSD develops in 5% of men and 10% of women at some time in their lives. This can happen at any age.

About 40% of people with PTSD develop it following the death of someone close to them.

PTSD also affects:

  • 1 in 5 firefighters.
  • 1 in 3 teenage survivors of car crashes.
  • 1 in 2 female rape victims.
  • 2 in 3 prisoners of war.

In most cases, symptoms of PTSD develop around one month after a traumatic event. However, there can be a delay of months or even years before symptoms arise.

How does PTSD present itself?

The most typical symptom of PTSD is known as re-experiencing. This occurs when a person vividly relives their traumatic experience unintentionally via:

  • Flashbacks.
  • Nightmares.
  • Repetitive and distressing images or sensations.
  • Pain, sweating, sickness or shaking.

As a result of this, people can develop feelings of guilt and shame, questioning why the event happened to them or if it was their fault.

Other ways PTSD can present itself include:

  • Avoidance and emotional numbing - this usually means avoiding certain places or people that remind someone of the traumatic experience, or refusing to talk about it. Some people might try to cope by not feeling anything at all.
  • Hyperarousal or feeling on edge - some people may have trouble relaxing or sitting still. This can lead to them being irritable, and having mood swings and angry outbursts, sleeping issues and difficulty concentrating.

Many people also develop other problems alongside PTSD, such as:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Self-harming.
  • Drug misuse.
  • Alcohol misuse.
  • Headaches and dizziness.
  • Chest pains.
  • Stomach aches.
  • Breakdown of relationships.
  • Trouble at work.

Why might fireworks be difficult for someone with PTSD?

PTSD UK says the condition puts people into a 'long-lasting alert mode, physically, mentally and emotionally'. This means they are constantly fearful of danger and display exaggerated responses to anything startling.

"If you don't have PTSD, think about how stress and tiredness can cause you to be extra sensitive. Maybe you become easily moved to tears, or you become excessively angry or anxious, out of proportion to the situation. That's a small insight into what PTSD can feel like, not least as people with this condition often sleep badly too, due to nightmares or restlessness," they say.

Fireworks have such a strong link to PTSD, as any loud or sudden noise can be a trigger. This can cause an involuntary episode of flashbacks, uncontrollable shaking, sweating, panic attacks, heart palpitations or other emotional symptoms.

"For example, an assault survivor may be startled and frightened by the sudden bang of fireworks. The explosive sounds, flashes of light and smell of gunpowder may trigger unwelcome memories for some veterans. Or, a person with PTSD from a natural disaster may mistake the rattling of windows from fireworks as the sound of another devastating earthquake," explains PTSD UK.

One person with PTSD recalled that every single firework they heard made them think someone was trying to break into their house.

"I became so fearful that someone was going to attack me again, so I felt I had to be on-guard. Even the slightest noise would trigger me into a full-blown terrifying flashback, so when fireworks season came, the initial whoosh, the pops and the bangs of fireworks just sent me into a spin of uncontrollable panic attacks. I had sleepless and tearful nights and felt exhausted from being in a state of alert all the time."

PTSD UK highlights that it isn't just the popping and banging sounds of fireworks that create problems for those with PTSD. The burning smell of fireworks and bonfires can also be a trigger. If someone's trauma involved fire or smoke, this can provoke a severe response.

What can you do if you have PTSD and struggle around fireworks?

While fireworks are readily available and easily accessible to the public, it's important that, if you have PTSD, you know how to keep yourself safe. PTSD UK highlights the importance of preparation ahead of the fireworks season.

Some things you can do to manage around fireworks

  • Remind yourself that you are safe - PTSD can trick your brain into thinking that things are not what they seem. This means you need to remind yourself of what is actually happening. You can do this by repeating sayings to yourself like, "This is my home," "I am safe here," "These are just fireworks," "I am not in danger." This coping strategy is most helpful when you practise it repeatedly before triggers occur.
  • Schedule distracting activities that you enjoy during these periods - this can help you relax and focus on things other than fireworks.
  • Use physical grounding techniques - these techniques can help your body and mind feel safe and more secure. You can do this by leaning your back against a wall or sitting with your feet flat on the floor. There might be other things that make you feel grounded, supported and safe. For example, wearing a favourite cosy scarf or wearing long sleeves.
  • Use weighted blankets - wrapping yourself up in a big blanket can feel like a big hug and make you feel comforted. Applying pressure to your body like this can also relax your nervous system and encourage serotonin production.
  • Try to not turn to avoidance - PTSD UK says many people who struggle with hypervigilance as part of their PTSD do things like turning the TV up loud, or using headphones to listen to music to drown out the noise of fireworks. However, they say this just isn't possible and avoidance can be counterproductive and add to the sense of danger. They suggest keeping your curtains open and actually watching the fireworks to reassure yourself that the noises and smells are from something harmless.
  • Use ear defenders, especially if you're very close to fireworks - these might be comforting for you to block out the loudest and sharpest bangs.
  • Keep it dark - if the flashes of light are what bother you, particularly when you're trying to sleep, try to block out the light. PTSD UK suggests doing this by installing a temporary blackout blind on your bedroom windows or wearing an eye mask if you're comfortable with that.
  • Practise breathing techniques - your breathing can become shallow when you are anxious or afraid. This is a programmed biological response. Take slow, deep breaths to tell your brain that everything is OK and it's safe to calm down. PTSD UK recommends imagining you are blowing out the candles on a birthday cake as you do this.

However, the most important thing is not to be too harsh on yourself. PTSD UK says you should accept the reactions and emotions you're experiencing, while reminding yourself that the noises are temporary and you are safe. Don't be critical of yourself, as that will not help.

How can those without PTSD be considerate during fireworks season?

There have been many campaigns seeking to regulate the use of fireworks. However, these have been met with considerable opposition. Therefore, private sale and use of fireworks are still legal. Unlike other countries, silent fireworks are not available from wholesale manufacturers yet in the UK either.

While those with PTSD don't necessarily want fireworks to be banned everywhere for all eternity, it's about being considerate and aware of the wider impact fireworks can have on people. You never know who might be struggling while you're enjoying fireworks displays and waving sparklers.

Some things you can do to be compassionate to people with PTSD during fireworks season

These include:

  • Consider using low-noise fireworks.
  • Give your neighbours notice in advance about any private fireworks displays.
  • Go to a professional display or an organised event in your community to keep fireworks away from residential gardens.

PTSD UK also stresses the importance of considering those without PTSD during fireworks season, who might be affected by them.

"Fireworks can affect a variety of people, not just those with PTSD. Children and adults with sensory processing disorders or who are on the autistic spectrum can have hypersensitivities to sound, light, touch, taste, smell and pain. These stimulate anxiety and feelings of being overwhelmed or confused. These feelings are also common for people with conditions that affect the brain or nervous system, such as dementia."

Where should you turn if you need professional support?

If you (or someone you know) is in immediate danger, in the UK you should dial 999.

If you require urgent psychological support, PTSD UK suggests calling the Samaritans on 116 123 or texting CONTACT to 85258 to reach trained volunteers at Shout.

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