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Caution: Fireworks May Spark PTSD Triggers

Veteran watching fireworksFor some, July 4 is an exciting holiday that ends with a colorful fireworks display. But, for those living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Independence Day and the weeks surrounding it are full of anxiety.

“People with severe PTSD may experience flashbacks or intrusive, unwanted memories of trauma when confronted with a stimulus like fireworks,” said Mercy Family Counseling Psychologist Scott Eilers, PsyD. “Some parts of the brain can have a hard time telling the difference between something terrible that happened in the past and something similar, but non-threatening, that is happening right now. We can feel pulled back into these memories. When triggered by loud, sudden noises or movements, the usual coping mechanisms sometimes don’t work for those with PTSD.”

That’s because PTSD is more than a mental health diagnosis; it influences the nervous system, too.

“Thinking, ‘I am safe’ or ‘it’s just fireworks,’ might calm a person mentally, but it isn’t going to make their nervous system stop reacting to fireworks as if they are dangerous,” Dr. Eilers explained. “The nervous system doesn’t understand words.”

But, it does understand the body’s actions. The right movements — like deep breaths — can help calm a person with PTSD.

“When we breathe slower, deeper and more calmly, we are directly communicating to the nervous system, ‘I am o.k. right now,’ in a language it can understand. This helps.”

It may also help to practice grounding and orienting exercises.

“Look around the room and name things, such as objects and colors. Repeat the current date, current time and where you’re at. These simple activities help engage parts of the brain that distinguish the past from the present and help us become aware that, right now, we are safe.”

Dr. Eilers says it’s important to remember these strategies to help those living with PTSD, especially around the Fourth of July, and always remain gentle.

“The worst thing is to become angry or frustrated with someone with PTSD,” he said. “They are trying to change an instinctive survival response in their brains and bodies — this is very difficult to do. Be patient and understanding; know that their brains interpret safe situations as dangerous ones because of past experiences they have had.”

And, celebrate safely this holiday.

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