By: Nichole Oliver LPC, NCC, DAAETS
Celebrating freedom in the USA on the Fourth of July is a significant and patriotic occasion. It commemorates the adoption of the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776, it represents the birth of the United States as an independent nation and the principles upon which it was founded. The Fourth of July can hold different meanings for different groups of people, such as veterans, first responders, firefighters, and civilians. Navigating these varied perspectives can involve showing respect, understanding, and empathy toward one another. The meaning behind this celebration revolves around the core values of freedom, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for many who have served. It symbolizes the rights and freedoms that American citizens enjoy, such as freedom of speech, religion, and assembly. It also recognizes the sacrifices made by countless individuals throughout history to secure and protect those freedoms. As a result, the Fourth of July is often marked by various activities and traditions such as parades, firework displays, barbecues, picnics, family gatherings, connecting, and gathering in community events.
Unfortunately, for veterans, first responders and those who have lost loved ones this is a reminder of the cost. Fireworks are a primary part of the celebrations and can potentially trigger panic, fear, anger, rage, and hypervigilance in individuals with PTSD. The amygdala, which is a part of the brain responsible for processing emotions and the fight-or-flight-freeze response, can perceive fireworks as a threat due to the similarities between the sounds of fireworks, gunfire and those associated with war, bombs, tanks firing off, or other traumatic events. This perception can lead to heightened reactivity and physiological changes in various brain systems, outside the individual’s control. This can lead to an increase in stress hormones, such as adrenaline and cortisol, causing physiological changes like increased heart rate, rapid breathing, muscle tension, and heightened alertness and scanning perimeter. Traumatic experiences can affect the functioning of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functions such as decision-making, impulse control, and emotional regulation. In individuals with PTSD, the prefrontal cortex may have difficulty modulating the strong emotional responses triggered by fireworks, leaving individuals unable to calm down, relax, connect, and even sleep for days after festivities.
Additionally, the hippocampus, another brain region involved in memory formation, may play a role in the fear response to fireworks associated with previous memories. In people with PTSD, the hippocampus may be structurally and functionally altered, affecting the processing of traumatic memories versus the present moment. The person's body is back in the previous trauma and may be dissociative or "spaced out," disengaged or even engaging in high-risk behavior. Some individuals feel anhedonia, numbness, nothing feels or tastes good, lack of interest, and isolation due to overstimulation of basic events for their individual nervous systems are overloaded and cannot meet the current demands outside of their bodies due to internal overwhelm on the nervous system. Different people may have varying emotional responses based on their unique experiences and coping mechanisms. If you or someone you know is experiencing anger, rage, or other intense reactions to sounds, fireworks, similar stimuli, or even interactions with others it's crucial to seek support from a mental health professional. They can provide personalized strategies to manage these reactions and work towards healing and recovery. The Fourth of July, with its fireworks and celebrations, can evoke complex emotions for veterans and their families, particularly those who have experienced a moral injury, an additional aspect of trauma. Moral injury refers to the psychological distress that arises from actions or events that violate an individual’s deeply held moral beliefs or ethical code. It often occurs in the context of military service, where individuals may be exposed to situations that challenge their values or involve acts that conflict with their sense of right and wrong.
The Fourth of July, as a celebration of patriotism and national pride, can serve as a reminder of the ideals and values associated with military service. For veterans who have experienced moral injury, this holiday can bring about psychological concepts that cause distress and inner conflict experienced when an individual's actions or witness events that violate their deeply held moral beliefs or ethical values. Examples are taking part in acts against one's moral code: Soldiers may be required to engage in or witness actions during combat that contradict their personal beliefs. For example, being involved in civilian casualties or acts of torture can deeply conflict with an individual's sense of right and wrong. Moreover, feeling survivor's guilt for those comrades that have died or were wounded more visible with physical injuries as many people do not understand the psychological, physiological, and emotional injuries sustained with PTSD are neurophysiological and can be seen in brain imaging and through psychological assessments administered by a mental health professional or psychiatrist and have can have significant implications on one's life, health and wellbeing if not treated.
Here are some ways the Fourth of July may impact veterans and their families in relation to moral injury:
When individuals with moral injury and/or PTSD hear sounds resembling their traumatic events, it can activate traumatic memories associated with those events. This activation can result in a range of emotional and physiological responses, such as anger, rage, panic, fear, and hypervigilance resulting from the autonomic nervous system. The inner ear plays a crucial role in our perception of sound and balance. Specifically, the malleus, incus, and stapes in the middle ear are involved in transmitting sound vibrations to the inner ear. When it comes to the neurobiology of sounds and how they are stored and retrieved in the brain, several brain regions and systems play crucial roles, particularly in the context of PTSD and physiological triggers.
It's important to note that the neurobiology of sounds and PTSD is complex and can vary among individuals. The interplay between these brain regions and systems contributes to the physiological and emotional responses triggered by sounds in individuals with PTSD. Treatment approaches, such as therapy and interventions targeting these brain regions, aim to help regulate and restore balance to these systems, reducing the impact of physiological triggers and improving overall well-being.
When it comes to trauma triggers and the neurobiology of trauma, the auditory system can indeed play a significant role. Traumatic events, such as war, combat, gunfire, or car accidents, can involve loud and sudden noises that impact the auditory system. These experiences can create a neurobiological association between those sounds and the traumatic event itself. Fireworks, crowded environments, or any other situations with loud noises and potentially chaotic surroundings can share similarities with the triggering sounds of traumatic events. These similarities can activate the neurobiological pathways associated with the original trauma, leading to heightened emotional and physiological responses.
Here are some strategies to manage triggers associated with sound-related trauma:
Remember, managing triggers associated with sound-related trauma is a personalized process. It's essential to acknowledge the diverse range of experiences among veterans and their families. Some individuals may find solace and pride in the Fourth of July celebrations, while others may struggle with conflicting emotions. It's crucial to create a supportive and understanding environment that allows for open dialogue and recognizes the complexities of moral injury. If you or someone you know is a veteran or a family member dealing with a moral injury or related challenges, it is recommended to seek professional help from mental health providers experienced in working with veterans. They can provide guidance, support, and therapeutic interventions to address the emotional impact of moral injury and promote healing. The autonomic nervous system (ANS) is responsible for regulating our body's automatic processes, including our stress response. Traumatic experiences can dysregulate the ANS, leading to heightened sensitivity and reactivity to triggers, including sound-related triggers. Restoring balance and regulation to the ANS can be a gradual and individualized process.
Here are some approaches that may help in resetting and restoring the ANS:
It's important to approach the restoration of the ANS with patience and self-compassion, as it can be a gradual process. Working with a professional can provide guidance and individualized support throughout your journey toward healing and recovery.