Professional July 4th Fireworks displays are meant for us to celebrate and enjoy our Independence.

But private displays of fireworks and such may be the worst way for patriotic Americans to honor the day – by dis-honoring the stress and courage which our military veterans (some of them our neighbors) have experienced, in life-threatening situations, to preserve our freedom.

My own father was an Army veteran (of MI), who received care and treatment at one of the best national facilities available to our veterans; and it’s local.  The ignorance of what harm we may cause our vets brings them more injury and insult, which they won’t point out to you or me.

The following explanation and guidelines are from Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital, here in Chicagoland:

As beautiful as they are, the sounds, smells and shockwaves of fireworks can be triggering for Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD,” said Annie Tang, staff psychologist at Hines VA Hospital.  “These can bring up emotional and physiological reactions, and bring up trauma memories from the past, which can bring up intense anxiety and fear.

Tang explains that the brain is very good at linking things, especially threat.

Combat Veterans, and those who’ve worked in combat zones, can pair threat with whatever was in that environment, including things they saw, heard or smelled.

These pairings can continue after returning to civilian life.  So, when fireworks or other loud noises occur, a Veteran’s brain can perceive that it is in danger.

According to Tang, avoiding the holiday is a common way of coping with the stress which Independence Day can bring; but that may not benefit someone, long-term.

In our society and military culture, Veterans are taught to avoid,” Tang explained.  “How many times has a Veteran heard ‘suck it up?’ In an immediate threat, [avoidance] can help, but in civilian life, it can really affect many veterans.”

Tang has treated Veterans at Hines VA since 2013 and recommends five things to help our veterans cope with triggers.

  1. Avoid avoidance.  Avoidance can be a short-term fix, but it tends to worsen the problem over time.  It’s helpful to confront safe triggers you’ve wanted to avoid, gradually.  Some Veterans may need help from a mental health professional.
  2. Remind yourself where you are and what is happening around you.  Repeating simple reminders, like ‘this is not a combat zone,’ and ‘these are only fireworks’ can help reset the brain during a PTSD trigger.
  3. Change the body’s temperature.  Safely lowering body temperatures can quickly remind someone where they are and help quell PTSD triggers.  Veterans can take a cold shower, or use an ice pack, ice cubes, frozen vegetables packs or splash cold water.
  4. Schedule meaningful activities you enjoy.  Planning self-care can boost your mood, which can offset the overall impact of stress triggers.
  5. Prioritize your mental health and seek treatment.  VA offers support and care through evidence-based treatments for PTSD, stress and anxiety.  VA also offers the PTSD Coach Mobile App that provides information and coping skills to help manage anxiety or distress.  To schedule an appointment with Hines VA Trauma Services, call 708-202-4668.

It’s not always easy, but I cannot emphasize enough that help is out there, and it can help people regain their lives,” said Tang.

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