How Fireworks Affect Veterans With PTSD

When a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms hears fireworks this weekend, they may not be hearing a celebration between family and friends.

“It’s not like they’re actually hearing fireworks,” said Rachel Holland, team leader at Harbor Behavioral Health, a ProMedica affiliate. “It takes them back to hearing what they experienced in war or during the trauma.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, up to 20 percent of soldiers serving in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom experience PTSD in a given year; 12 percent of those serving in the Gulf War have PTSD in a given year, and 30 percent of Vietnam veterans have had PTSD at some point in their lifetime.

The Wounded Warrior Project survey of 43,000 injured veterans serving post-Sept. 11 states PTSD is the second-most common health problem (behind sleep conditions), with blasts being the most common cause of injury.

“Fireworks would definitely affect the startle response or they could cause associative symptoms, like flashbacks,” Holland said. “A lot of times, people with PTSD have hypervigilance, so that could make them sensitive to fireworks as well.”

Even though family and friends may be mindful of a veteran’s PTSD diagnosis, Holland suggests those with PTSD take it upon themselves to prepare for fireworks.

“If they are in services, they could talk to their counselor to figure out what might work best for them,” she said. “Planning, coming up with the scenario so they know how to handle it once the Fourth of July arrives. In therapy, they can practice grounding, which helps veterans make themselves aware of where they are and what’s happening, so it doesn’t take them into a flashback episode.”

Family members of veterans diagnosed with PTSD can do their part to make the holiday more comfortable.

“Let them know before the fireworks celebrations begin so they can leave if they choose not to be present for that part of the festivities,” Holland said.

One problem those with PTSD face at this time of year is that the fireworks aren’t contained to one day. Loud celebrations often occur in the days and even weeks surrounding the holiday. Holland said even those without PTSD can find the blasts loud and disturbing, particularly when they’re not expected.

Because it can be nearly impossible to completely escape fireworks, she also recommends that veterans with PTSD find somewhere in the house where sounds are minimal or use noise-cancelling headphones.

For more information about Harbor Behavioral Health’s PTSD services, please visit www.harbor.org or call 419-475-4499.

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