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Fireworks can be frightening for some people

People watch fireworks at Saxonburg VFD fairgrounds hosted by New Life Christian Ministries on July 3, 2023. Eagle file photo

What’s more American than a fireworks displays on the Fourth of July? But for some, these displays bring fear and panic instead of wonder and joy.

This is especially the case for military veterans who saw combat, who — according to the Department of Veterans Affairs — suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at a slightly higher rate than the rest of the populace. For those veterans, fireworks may not sound much different from anything they heard while on the battlefield.

Christopher Noullet, a psychologist for the VA Butler Healthcare, said these experiences happen because the brain is good at generalizing painful stimuli.

“Certainly, the intensity of the types of explosions than you can hear in a combat scenario would be much greater than fireworks,” Noullet said. “But one of the notable things about triggers related to trauma and PTSD is that they can tend to ‘generalize’ to other stimulants. So the sound and the unexpected nature of the fireworks is sufficiently similar to the way that explosions and gunfire might show up in a combat zone.”

He said the worst experiences for veterans come when veterans aren’t expecting fireworks.

“There's times when folks in neighborhoods might be setting off fireworks at unexpected times, or even after the Fourth, or leading up to the Fourth of July,” Noullet said. “Those can be more difficult to prepare for, so I think that can be a more concerning trigger for folks with PTSD.”

Fireworks also can be a harrowing experience for seniors dealing with Alzheimer’s disease and other related cognitive illnesses.

“They could have difficulty understanding that it’s fireworks and it’s not an explosion,” said Beth Herold, of the Butler Area Agency on Aging. “If they have trouble processing information and understanding that, they may not be able to make the connection that the sounds that they’re hearing are fireworks, and it’s not something that might harm them.”

Herold said seniors suffering from Alzheimer’s may be so unnerved by the sound of fireworks that they may flee their home.

“It’s really important, if you have somebody in the house with cognitive deficits, that you’re there to offer them reassurance and to make sure that they are safe, so that they are not going to run out of the house,” Herold said.

The Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has four tips for family caregivers on how to provide a safe Fourth of July for their loved ones who are dealing with Alzheimer’s or similar ailments.

One is to “forgo the fireworks” by keeping your loved one in an indoor environment during the night of the Fourth. Second is to create a calm environment by creating ambient noise to block the sound of fireworks.

The third is to go the extra mile by limiting the gathering size to avoid overwhelming your loved one. And finally, find creative ways to celebrate the holiday that don’t involve explosives, such as baking patriotic desserts or singing patriotic songs.

“One of the things that I would emphasize is just the importance of having a good support system,” said Noullet. “This includes family and friends that have an awareness or are able to tune in to those sensitivities.”

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