I fondly remember, as a child, piling in the car and driving to an empty parking lot to watch Fourth of July fireworks with my family. The spectacle of vivid lights and colors was awe-inspiring to me as a kid. Before and after the event, I would light off small, unassuming fireworks such as sparklers, snakes in the grass or smoke bombs. I can recall the entire neighborhood crackling with laughter and noise, and smelling of smoke and sulfur. I never imagined fireworks were not enjoyable for everyone.
It wasn’t until I adopted my first dog as an adult that I learned the terror those loud pops and booms could instill. He would hide in the closet shaking with fear. It would be hours after the noise and excitement ended before he felt safe enough to come out of his hiding spot. But, it’s not just our pets that we need to worry about; those who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) may also be affected by the loud, sudden noises that accompany a Fourth of July night.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) web site, PTSD is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. The website further explains, it is natural to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of reactions after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened even when they are not in danger.
Surveys have been conducted to assess the percentage of U.S. veterans that suffer from PTSD. Among those service members stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, the prevalence of PTSD was 13.8% (1). Gulf war service members had a slightly lower prevalence of PTSD among its veterans at 10.1% (2). And finally, Vietnam veterans had the highest rate of PTSD, 30.9% for men and 26.9% for women (3).
While a variety of sights, smells and sounds can trigger PTSD, fireworks are one such noise that may trigger a PTSD episode. Groups such as Military with PTSD, a 501(C)(3) nonprofit, is one such organization campaigning about the potential danger and stress attributed to fireworks and how they may trigger PTSD in ex-combat veterans. Its ‘Explosion of Kindness’ campaign raises funds and educates the public to help bring awareness to the potential psychological triggers that fireworks can create. Funds also go toward providing veterans with a “Please be courteous with fireworks” sign that can be displayed in their yard, alerting neighbors to the potential harm fireworks may cause. Visit the Military with PTSD website to donate or to purchase a supporter sign for any veterans in your neighborhood.
While fireworks can be a beautiful and patriotic sight for many, remember that not everyone feels the same joy at the loud, sudden noise they elicit. Veterans and others with PTSD can choose to stay away from scheduled fireworks displays, but many cannot escape the explosive noise of an M-80 or bottle rocket set off by a well-intentioned, but potentially hurtful neighbor. Be aware of any veterans in your neighborhood and communicate with them. Find out if fireworks’ noise is harmful or joyful to them and celebrate appropriately. If you suspect that you, or anyone you know, may suffer from PTSD, Summit Psychological Associates has clinicians that specialize in trauma evaluations and treatments.
1. Tanielian, T. & Jaycox, L. (Eds.). (2008). Invisible Wounds of War: Psychological and Cognitive Injuries, Their Consequences, and Services to Assist Recovery. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.
2. Kang, H.K., Natelson, B.H., Mahan, C.M., Lee, K.Y., & Murphy, F.M. (2003). Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome-like illness among Gulf War Veterans: A population-based survey of 30,000 Veterans. American Journal of Epidemiology, 157(2):141-148.
3. Kulka, R.A., Schlenger, W.A., Fairbanks, J.A., Hough, R.L., Jordan, B.K., Marmar, C.R., … Cranston, A.S. (1990). Trauma and the Vietnam War generation: Report of findings from the National Vietnam Veterans Readjustment Study. New York: Brunner/Mazel.