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It’s nearly time for the sky to be alight with sparks of colored light, dazzling pyrotechnic spectacles that announce to the world that we are proud to be American’s. We will gather with friends and family to eat, drink and celebrate in the way that only true blue Americans do--with gusto and unrelenting excitement. 

For some, the celebrations of others can come with a cost. Those that suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (abbreviated PTSD) and other significant mental health conditions can find the festivities in their community to be enough to trigger a serious episode that can have effects long after the last sparkler is lit. 

A common misconception is that PTSD only affects those that have battlefield experience. The truth is PTSD can be caused by a number of traumas to both military veterans and civilians. The National Center for PTSD and the US Department of Veteran's Affairs notes that victims of gun or physical violence including domestic violence and childhood abuse can have lasting psychological effects including post-traumatic stress disorder. Individuals that have survived car accidents and natural disasters, along with refugees and first responders can all suffer from witnessing a trauma or dealing with the aftermath of a traumatic event.  

With nearly half the population experiencing trauma, it is important to note that of those, up to 10% of those individuals will suffer from PTSD. That adds up to nearly 8 million Americans that suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder each year. 

To better understand their plight, it is important to understand what exactly PTSD is. An editorial written by Arash Javanbakht, a professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neurosciences at Wayne State University, explains that a core component of PTSD is a hyper sense of arousal. Better explained, it is a state where a person is hyper-alert to any sign of an oncoming threat. This can include being on edge, easily startled, and constantly scanning their environment. “Imagine, for instance, stepping down the stairs in the dark after hearing a noise; you worried an intruder might be downstairs. Then a totally unpredictable loud sound explodes right outside your window." he writes. 

For some people that suffer from PTSD, that loud and unexpected sound can cause a panic attack or trigger flashbacks--a sensory experience that makes it seem like they are again experiencing their old trauma. The effect can be so severe that individuals have been known to drop to the ground or go into an instinctual fight-or-flight mode where they can confuse the concern and help of others as a threat as they try to escape the sensory overload. Later, the experience can trigger nightmares, insomnia, and other worsening PTSD symptoms that can last for hours, days, even weeks. 

The question is how do we celebrate the independence of our great nation without causing potential harm to our neighbors? 

According to an article shared by the United States Marine Corps Community Services, in 2015 a man by the name of Kevin Rhoads, a marine veteran with PTSD put a sign in his yard saying: “Combat Veteran lives here. Please be courteous with fireworks." His goal was not to stop the fun or the fireworks but to have a conversation and give him and others the time they need to prepare themselves for the night’s celebrations. 

Many of those that suffer from PTSD are able to mentally prepare themselves for planned events like the Fourth of July. They employ healthy coping mechanisms like the use of earplugs or headphones that can help reduce sensory overload. They can prepare a safety plan that puts them in connection with people that can help support them through an episode if needed. If their response is severe enough some even plan day trips away from areas that are ripe with the triggering blasts. 

Understanding their needs and being compassionate is one of the most encouraging things we in the community can offer our neighbors that struggle with PTSD. If you are aware of a neighbor or person in your community that is at risk of a PTSD event triggered by fireworks, consider moving your celebration to another location away from their home or “safe space.” You can also consider using different kinds of fireworks, for example, substituting fountains or smoke bombs for firecrackers. Finally, the best thing anyone can do is to make sure that you set off your fireworks at predictable times. Knowing that sudden loud noises are expected during certain times on certain days can help those with PTSD plan ahead and the festivities can be enjoyed by everyone. 

If you or someone you know is suffering and needs help this Independence Day, please don’t hesitate to reach out for help. The Department of Veteran’s Affairs offers an app called PTSD Coach which can offer help and suggestions. You can also contact the National Center for PTSD Crisis line at  1-800-273-8255 or dial 9-1-1 for emergency response.