Uncovering the Facts – and Myths – About PTSD

Fireworks spark happiness for most people, evoking fond memories like watching the sky light up after a fun-filled day of all-you-can-eat hotdogs and watermelon on the Fourth of July. But for some, fireworks ignite something more distressing – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). For certain individuals with PTSD, the flashes of light, smoke, and explosive sounds serve as reminders of gun violence, terrorist attacks, or other traumatizing experiences.

Dr. Jill Thompson, Medical Director for Harmony Health Group’s North Carolina and Tennessee locations, says that fireworks are one of many potential PTSD triggers and that – contrary to popular belief – it’s not just soldiers and combat veterans who experience PTSD.

“While PTSD was once called “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” and was primarily associated with veterans, anyone who has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event can develop PTSD,” she said. “Individuals with PTSD have intense, uncontrollable emotional and physical reactions when they think about or are reminded of their traumatic experience.”

PTSD Defined – and Demonstrated

The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. While it’s typical to feel upset after facing a devastating situation, most people recover and move on. But for individuals with PTSD, it’s not that simple.

According to the National Center for PTSD, about six out of every 100 U.S. adults will have PTSD at some point in their lives. Examples of experiences that could potentially induce PTSD include being assaulted, witnessing a shooting or murder, having a near-death experience, experiencing a natural disaster, or being involved in or witnessing another traumatizing event. Take, for example, the tragic 2018 school shooting in Parkland, Florida.

Students and faculty at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School experienced devastating trauma when a former student entered the school and opened fire, killing 17 people and wounding numerous others. Years later, several survivors report suffering from PTSD, noting that it’s typically triggered at the most unexpected times – such as an incident that occurred during a marching band competition almost two years after the shooting. Marjorie Stoneman Douglas was one of several high schools competing in the event, and the school was among the top performers. Susan Kehl, who was there to watch her son perform for another school, remembers the event vividly.

“During the awards ceremony, the venue set off fireworks after each winning school was announced,” she said. “All of a sudden, I heard someone screaming and crying behind me, and I turned to see a young girl sobbing, shaking uncontrollably and clinging to her mother. Another parent ran down the stadium stairs yelling for them to stop the fireworks, and I noticed that other Stoneman-Douglas students were crying as well. Those kids endured such a horrific tragedy, and it was heart-wrenching to see the lasting impact it had on them.”   

Things to Know About PTSD

  • PTSD Symptoms Fall into Four General Categories:
  1. Re-living/Intrusive Symptoms – Individuals with PTSD often have flashbacks that make them feel as if they’re reliving the traumatic event when they see, hear, or experience a PTSD trigger. Re-living and intrusive symptoms also include nightmares, recurring disturbing memories about the event, and physical symptoms such as a rapid heartbeat, sweating, and trembling.
  2. Avoidance Symptoms – Many people with PTSD fearfully avoid places, events, or situations that remind them of their trauma. For example, a plane-crash survivor might avoid flying.  Someone who experienced a sexual assault might avoid intimacy. A natural disaster survivor might misuse alcohol or controlled substances to avoid remembering the tragedy. A victim of gun violence might avoid firework displays.
  3. Arousal/Reactivity Symptoms – Arousal and reactivity symptoms include being intensely startled and having extreme reactions to sudden loud noises and other trauma-triggering stimuli, aggressive driving, insomnia, unwarranted angry or aggressive outbursts, and engaging in high-risk or destructive behaviors like substance use or self harm.
  4. Cognition and Mood Symptoms: Sometimes PTSD causes cognitive impairments, such as having difficulty remembering details about the traumatic event.  Symptoms can also include extreme mood swings, dwelling on negative thoughts, and feeling emotionless, numb, and mistrustful of others.  Feeling personally responsible and guilty for not doing more to prevent the tragedy is also a cognition and mood symptom.  
  • PTSD Diagnosis Criteria: To meet the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, the National Institute of Mental Health states that an individual must have experienced symptoms for at least one month, and symptoms must be severe enough to interfere with daily life. In addition, individuals must exhibit:
  • One or more re-living/intrusive symptoms
    •  One or more avoidance symptoms
    •  Two or more arousal/reactivity symptoms, and
    •  Two or more cognition and mood symptoms
  • Co-occurring Conditions: People with PTSD often have additional mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, or acute stress disorder. Substance use disorder is also common in individuals with PTSD.
  • PTSD And Women:  Statistics indicate that women are more likely to develop PTSD than men. A study by the National Center for PTSD shows that about eight out of every 100 women will develop PTSD at some point in their lives, compared to four out of every 100 men. Some experts attribute the difference to the fact that women experience certain violent and traumatic incidents – like sexual assault and domestic abuse – more frequently than men. Sexual violence is among the leading causes of PTSD.
  • You Don’t Necessarily Have to Experience the Trauma First-Hand to Develop PTSD: In fact, sometimes simply hearing about a loved-one’s devastating tragedy can lead to PTSD. PTSD can also impact people who witness chronic trauma, as well as individuals with high-stress occupations such as first responders, 911 dispatchers, air traffic controllers, airline pilots, and trauma victim counselors.

Moving Forward – Getting Treatment for PTSD

If you suspect that you or someone you care about may struggling with PTSD, take comfort in knowing that there are a variety of effective treatments to help you manage and overcome your symptoms. Sometimes symptoms improve on their own, but professional help is often required. PTSD treatment options include:

  • Psychotherapy: Also known as ‘talk therapy,’ psychotherapy has many different forms and components – many of which are effective for PTSD treatment. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, for example, involves getting to the root of a person’s unhealthy patterns of thought and destructive behavior and exploring more constructive ways of thinking and behaving. Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing can help alleviate negative memories and reduce emotional PTSD-related stress.
  • Medication:  Certain medications can also help manage PTSD symptoms.
  • Self-Soothing and Stress-Management: Meditation, trauma-informed yoga, peer support groups, getting a service animal, reaching out to support services like the National Center for PTSD, and other self-management strategies can be effective forms of PTSD therapy.

When all is said and done – if fireworks trigger traumatic flashbacks, or driving on the highway gives you panic attacks, don’t despair. Dr. Thompson says that, with the proper treatment and support, the long-term prognosis for individuals with PTSD is encouraging.

“Using a combination of effective treatments can improve your symptoms and give you the tools you need to successfully move forward,” she said. “Effective therapy, a strong social and emotional support system, and if necessary, medication – can help you gain a sense of control of yourself – and your life.”

If you or a loved one is suffering from PTSD and your symptoms are severe enough to negatively impact your personal and professional life, it’s time to consider professional help. The Harmony Health Group family of treatment centers is here for you, ready to help you restore harmony and balance to your life. Reach out to us today.