“Fireworks Aren’t Fun Anymore.”
By Jennifer D. Street, LCSW
Team Leader for Lone Survivor Foundation
July 4th, Veterans Day, and Memorial Day are all significant events on our Nation’s calendar that remind us to honor and appreciate the men and women who sacrifice so much for our freedom. As a child I remember loading up the car, driving to the regional park, having a picnic, and then watching a fireworks spectacular set to a medley of patriotic music. It was a highlight of the summer. We all left with full hearts, feeling grateful for our country and the military that defends it.
But as I got older I began to realize this time-honored tradition that is supposed to celebrate our service members actually traumatizes many of them. It is incredibly hard to distinguish the sound of a firework from the sound of a gunshot or an explosion. The smell of sulfur, the sound of a firework whizzing up into the air, and even flashing lights in the sky are significant triggers for many service members dealing with Post Traumatic Stress (PTS).
Hearing a Vietnam veteran describe how he puts his house on lock-down, closes the curtains, and basically hides inside with headphones on until the fireworks end makes you begin to think differently. Having a young dad who is a post 9-11 veteran say that the only way he can spend the 4th of July with his family is to leave the city limits and hike up a mountain to a safe place where they can see the fireworks but not hear them brings a lot of perspective. Or listening to the military couple who wants more than anything to take their kids to Disney World and experience the Magic Kingdom but they can’t because every night there will be a fireworks display is truly heartbreaking. And so, fireworks just aren’t fun anymore.
Maybe you’re with me. If fireworks aren’t fun for you it makes perfect sense and you are not alone! I wish I could wave a magic wand and make them stop. If I could I’d do it in a heartbeat! Avoidance is one of the key traits of Post Traumatic Stress. Many people spend hours arranging their plans to avoid trauma triggers like fireworks. But unfortunately, we all know that there’s no way to avoid every trigger and eventually avoidance as a coping tactic stops working too.
So if we can’t stop the fireworks, what can we do to make it through this holiday with less anxiety?
Here are a few ideas…
PLANNING A LOW ANXIETY HOLIDAY
- Make plans that involve doing something you enjoy with people who know about your struggle and can support you. Being with safe people when experiencing a trigger is better than being alone.
- Choose to spend the evening in a safe, non-crowded location that is far away from major fireworks displays.
- Be realistic with yourself. You can not control every situation where a trigger might occur. Work on creating affirmations and balanced thinking about experiencing triggers such as…”When triggered, I use skills to ground myself. I remind myself I’m safe and that this anxiety will pass.”
- Tell those around you what happens and what you need when triggered.
- Use earplugs and/or noise canceling headphones during fireworks displays.
- Plan to engage in a lot of self-care that day whether through massage, exercise, yoga, or even getting a mani/pedi. Self-care will help you get out of fight-flight-or-freeze mode and into a state of physical and mental calmness, making you less likely to react in panic mode.
- Practice breath work that resets the nervous system such as “alternate nostril breathing” or “ocean breath”
- If you know the holiday will be heard for you, schedule therapy sessions either before, after, or both so that you have professional support to avoid a setback in your post-traumatic growth and healing.
STRATEGIES FOR MANAGING ANXIETY AS IT OCCURS
So you might be thinking…yeah this is great but what if I do all these things and still get triggered? If you find yourself with a racing heart and panic has just hit you, here are some things to try…
- Count backward from 1000 by subtracting in increments of 10. Our brains are amazing computers but they can’t panic and do mathematics at the same time. So while you are subtracting the panic will subside.
- Look around you and name all the colors and objects you see in the room. This is called mental grounding. It brings your mind back to the present moment.
- Touch and describe objects near you such as the chair you’re sitting in or a pen you’re holding in your hand. This is called physical grounding. It brings your body back to the present moment.
- Focus on taking deep, even breaths while saying the word “Relax” or repeating a phrase like “Inhaling, I breathe in. Exhaling, I breathe out.”
- Change your environment by taking a walk, splashing cool water on your face, or doing an active stretch.
- Pay attention to your body’s cues and give yourself what you need.
These are just a few simple techniques for managing anxiety in the moment. Most of us believe our anxiety goes from 0 to 100 miles per hour in a split second. It can feel that way, but if we could watch the process of panic in slow motion we would see that our body sends signals early on that anxiety is building. These signals might be things like increased heart rate, racing thoughts, flushed face, etc. Understanding the anatomy of your panic attack means learning your body’s mental and physical cues in the order they typically happen and then training yourself to recognize and respond to those signals early on before they reach that point of full-blown panic.
While some of these things are easy to implement, others require training and support. There is no shame in seeking help. Post-traumatic stress is a normal psychological (mind) and physiological (body) reaction to an abnormal experience (like combat). You are not crazy. Your brain is responding as it should to protect you but it may need help to realize it doesn’t have to do that anymore.
Know that this Independence Day everyone at Lone Survivor will be thinking of you and hoping this article helped in some way.
For more information or to attend a Lone Survivor Retreat, please connect us through our website at https://lonesurvivorfoundation.org/service-members/