• Kayte Thomas

Trauma informed 4th of July (quiet please!)

This weekend, people across the nation are likely to be celebrating 4th of July with hopefully safely-distanced activities. One of the most common ways to enjoy the festivities is of course by setting off fireworks. But did you know that fireworks can be a significant concern for certain populations? Many people are unaware that one of the country’s favourite celebratory pastimes is at times harmful to others, so if this is news to you – please keep reading!

Fireworks are loud and colourful by design, that’s part of the fun right? But for people who have experienced trauma, this is anything but fun. Two groups of people are particularly vulnerable during this holiday – refugees and veterans. And both of these groups are vulnerable to being overwhelmed by the sound and/or sight of fireworks for the same reason: because of war. Often, refugees have experienced significant violence and warfare, and the sound of fireworks can remind them of gunfire, bombs, or other explosions. The sudden bright flash of light can have the same effect. Refugees are often the casualties of war; they have been traumatized by military violence through no fault of their own. They are the citizens who were simple in the wrong place at the wrong time, or who had the misfortune of being in a location targeted for combat. This is important because the combination of a sense of helplessness with a lack of control over a traumatic situation actually increases both the likelihood of experiencing and severity of symptoms to a trauma response. Basically, refugees who have fled because of warfare are significantly affected by celebratory fireworks.

Those who have been in military combat are also at risk though for the same reasons. Whether having been the one following order to launch weapons or on the receiving end of enemy fire, violence is traumatizing regardless. There is a level of desensitization and dehumanization which is required to participate in this process, and that takes a toll on those involved both emotionally and psychologically. Being exposed to such violent situations where chances of survival are uncertain creates trauma in those who endure this. The experience of combat is not something that we as human beings are designed to withstand for any period of time, let alone prolonged exposure. So, despite any training received, being in combat has negative ramifications on the physiological well-being of those involved.

Trauma causes some predictable responses in people. Trauma also resides in the body, not just the mind. What this means is that when something triggers a traumatic memory, there can be an involuntary physical reaction – especially if the person is unprepared for a past trauma being re-triggered. Physical reactions can include shaking, nausea/upset stomach, headaches, difficulty concentrating, and more. Other reactions can be feelings of anxiety, helplessness, anger, and disorientation. Additionally, the unpredictability of fireworks especially in a neighbourhood setting when several people may be shooting these throughout the night can leave traumatized individuals struggling to cope.

The person experiencing this is unable to control these symptoms, because trauma responses are involuntary and out of one’s control. As a physiological response, this is something that occurs within the nervous system as a protection measure. Their fight or flight response kicks in as an autonomic reaction to imminent danger – and a traumatized brain can’t really discern between a gunshot or a firework explosion, so it’s important to be aware of how our actions might affect others who have a trauma history.

Besides those who have been in wartime situations, fireworks can be traumatizing for others as well. People with autism, developmental disabilities, or sensory issues can struggle to process the experience and feel overwhelmed also. Those who have survived domestic violence can have a strong response to the sound, as can people who grew up in neighbourhoods where gun violence was frequently present. For that matter, children who have lived through school shootings would fall into that category too. Pets are frequently distressed by the loud noise as are very young children as well. There are so many different populations for whom fireworks are just not fun at all, so it is very important to be aware of this before you go about your festivities so that you are not unintentionally distressing those around you.

So what can you do? A good option is to choose quieter alternatives. A quick google search for noiseless or quiet fireworks will provide a list of options. Fountains, candles, and sparklers are some great choices to ask for if you’re making a purchase and trying to be sensitive to the needs of others. Also consider lasers, glow sticks, coloured/lighted bubbles, and other alternatives to fireworks altogether. Besides that though, know who is in your community. Ask around a few days in advance if there are any neighbours who might be vulnerable during this time so that you can communicate and prepare them if you plan to light fireworks. Consider contacting your local refugee resettlement agency, veterans service agency, and domestic violence shelters to determine if they have any suggestions or additional information about the needs of those in your community as well.

But what if someone in your home is having a trauma response to fireworks? First, don’t be upset with them. Remind yourself that they are unable to control this reaction and it is not their fault no matter what it looks like or how challenging it may be to handle a high level of emotion. Then, be sure to behave in a way which helps their brain to register safety and their nervous system to calm down. Speak in calm tones, move cautiously, ask what their preferences are (for example, one person might really want to be hugged tightly while another might flinch or react if they are touched at all), help them to take slow breaths, and determine what you can do together to help the person to feel better. If possible, create a plan together before the 4th of July in order to be proactive with self-care.

And what if you are the person experiencing a trauma response? Well, as I just mentioned it’s helpful to think of a way to handle this in advance. See if you can have ear plugs or headphones to help drown out the noise, close the curtains to help block out light flashes, choose an activity which is usually calming for you, watch a movie, have a friend over for support, and ask your neighbours if they plan to set off any fireworks in advance. If you’re feeling overwhelmed during a fireworks event, remember some of the tools which help to ground you and reduce anxiety: deep breathing, slowly counting or identifying names or items near you, trying a mindfulness app for a guided activity, and reminding yourself that you are safe are a few good places to start. Be gentle with yourself as well, sometimes people feel ashamed by trauma responses but remember that this is involuntary. If needed, seek out a therapist to help you process past trauma as well as this can reduce severity or even eliminate symptoms.

Now that you know a little bit about how this holiday celebration can negatively affect some folks in your community, please take steps to be considerate this weekend! A little compassion goes a long way, and can help ensure that any 4th of July activities are safe and enjoyable for everyone involved.

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