Fireworks can trigger PTSD. Here’s how you can help yourself and others find ease.
There's a darker side to fireworks.
Fireworks and Independence Day are synonymous for many—the pyrotechnic shows that reverberate across the nation on and around the Fourth of July are often one of the most anticipated events of the holiday. Yet they can also be difficult for people who suffer from some types of PTSD.
The loud noises, bright flashes, and pungent scent of gunpowder that accompany fireworks can be a trigger for people who have served in the military, are refugees of war, participated in protests, or survived a natural disaster, to name a few of the groups who may struggle this weekend. For some, these aerial explosions can trigger a full-body response, ranging from heightened anxiety to complete dissociation and hallucinations.
This doesn’t mean that somebody with PTSD cannot or will not be able to enjoy life during firework season. Avoiding the ubiquitous pyrotechnics altogether, after all, isn’t a long-term solution. What will make it easier is if they and those around them take a couple extra steps to ensure the long weekend is more pleasant than not.
What to do if you have PTSD
If you personally experience PTSD from fireworks, there are a few things you can try, according to Rani Hoff, a psychiatry professor at Yale School of Medicine who works with the US Department of Veterans Affairs’ Office of Mental Health and Suicide Prevention.
Hoff also recommends looking at the National Center for PTSD’s website, which has a wealth of information for the public, including screening questions you can bring to your doctor if you think you might have undiagnosed PTSD.
In the time leading up to firework season, if you’re going to therapy, check in with your doctor or therapist and talk with them about your concerns. They are trained professionals and should be able to help you. If you are taking medication, make sure to use it as prescribed—do not take less, and do not try to preemptively cope with the possibility of a trigger by taking more, says Hoff.
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Try to go into firework season relaxed, says Hoff. If you have habitual practices such as yoga, tai chi, meditation, running, or working out, she suggests trying to plan them into your days, as they may help release tension.
You can also try to practice some deep breathing. “Just doing five slow deep breaths will do wonders for calming, and you don’t need any fancy gizmos or instruction,” says Hoff. Other helpful 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 things you can smell, and one positive thought, she explains.
“Know your limits, and adjust accordingly,” says Hoff. Some people will want to sit out the show and stay at home. Others will go out with their friends, but will still need to distance themselves or leave early as explosions fill the sky—think about how you want to handle your exposure to fireworks and be true to that.
Mitigate your triggers
Just because you want to see fireworks, doesn’t mean you cannot mitigate your exposure. Consider finding a spot where you can see the airbursts but they aren’t quite so close or loud, if you think that would lower your anxiety, Hoff says. Or do your best to minimize the triggering aspects and increase your coping aids: shut windows and doors, wear noise-canceling headphones, or earplugs, says Hoff.
Use healthy coping mechanisms
It might be tempting to drink alcohol or use other mind-altering substances to take the edge off. 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. “Engaging in activities such as writing, journaling, painting, drawing, and working on a hobby like building a model, cooking, playing an instrument, gardening, dancing… may be useful for some to use as positive coping activities,” says Eugenia Weiss, a 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 dial up during the day for emotional support.
Heck, maybe just hang out with your dog in the bathtub. “Having a friendly animal around in a safe space may be just the ticket, and if you are calming your dog down, you might be 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 this plan to at least one other person you will be with so they can help explain the situation to others, Hoff says. “If you have reached your limit, do what it takes to feel safer—go in the house, call a Lyft, take the car—if you are sober—and pick people back up later,” Hoff says. “Plan out the strategy ahead of time so you don’t start to panic 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 experiencing 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 and civilian trauma.
“As you might expect, there are no easy or simple tricks that friends or family should try,” says Black. “Because PTSD symptoms are complex and can be unpredictable, little tricks can—and often will—backfire.” You can help by asking your loved one how much or how little they want to be involved in fireworks-related festivities, by listening without judgment even if you can’t fully understand their needs, and by respecting and supporting their choices about how much or how little they want to do, says Black. Let them take the lead.
It might be hard for somebody who is experiencing PTSD to have the courage to speak up, or go out of their way to ask for assistance or changes to the plans. But you can help before the fireworks start, too. Consider asking neighbors or people from the neighborhood if they’re planning to set off fireworks—when and where—so you can help your loved one plan around it.
Keep an eye out for developing symptoms, says Hoff. “You probably don’t have to hover, but if you see signs of anxiety, you might check in, ask how they are, and whether they want to leave.”
Try not to assume anything, says Black. Some people with PTSD may want to be involved, or they may not. “They may also change their mind right 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, don’t negate, and don’t shame, says Hoff. Avoid using sentences like “It’s only a few fireworks, what’s the big deal?”, ”You’re just making excuses, there’s nothing wrong with you,” “Why aren’t you over this 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 may think you are lightening the mood, but it isn’t funny.”
Try to relate
“Substitute a migraine for PTSD. If a family member got a migraine in the middle of fireworks, how would you respond?” says Hoff. That can help demystify your response strategy, as well as make it easier for you to somewhat 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 somebody during a panic or a moment of distress, delegate. There’s nothing wrong with not having the tools to handle a difficult situation, as long as you are honest about it. Try to find someone who can give your loved one the support they need.
Have a designated driver
This may seem superficial, Hoff says, but if fireworks are going off all around and somebody with PTSD is trying to get to a safe space, they may have a hard time driving safely. “Particularly veterans from the Middle East conflicts, who may have experienced roadside bombs, may find it very hard to drive safely and it may make things worse,” she says.
Remember to take care of yourself, too
When the situation has relaxed and your loved one has what they need, check in with yourself. “Having a family member with PTSD can be very stressful and distressing,” Hoff says. “Seek assistance from your trusted social circle, a support group, clergy, a counselor or your doctor if your health is suffering.”
And as always, if you or someone around you is experiencing a crisis or is feeling suicidal, contact the national suicide hotline or the Veterans Crisis Line for Veterans at 1-800-273-8255. Telephone, text, and chat options are available 24/7.