Oscar Solis, Jr. is a retired U.S. Marine who doesn’t like celebrating the Fourth of July.
“I’m very honored by the intent, but it’s the celebration behind it – the fireworks, the large crowds – that’s a bit much for me,” the Afghanistan and Iraq War Veteran explained.
Solis is not alone. Every year the nation celebrates its independence with fireworks. What some don’t realize is that these colorful celebrations of American freedom can seriously impact the Veterans who defended it.
“As beautiful as they are, the sounds, smells and shockwaves of fireworks can be triggering for Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD,” said Annie Tang, staff psychologist at Edward Hines, Jr. VA Hospital. “These can bring up emotional and physiological reactions, and bring up trauma memories from the past, which can bring up intense anxiety and fear.”
Tang explained that the brain is very good at pairing things, especially threat. Combat Veterans and those who worked in combat zones can pair threat with whatever was in that environment, including things they saw, heard or smelled.
These pairings can continue after returning to civilian life. So, when fireworks or other loud noises occur, a Veteran’s brain can feel in danger.
“That’s absolutely me,” said Solis. “It’s like an animalistic brain. It’s a lot of negative things you associate with that makes you hesitant to do everything.”
Although time and treatment have helped with coping, Solis still prefers to stick to his regular schedule during the holiday.
“I really struggled for a long time. I took a bad turn initially when I first got out. Over the past few years or so, it’s gotten better. Now I can manage,” he explained. “But I stay in; my routine is everything. I stick to my routine.”
According to Tang, avoiding the holiday is a common way of coping with the stress Independence Day can bring but may not benefit someone long-term.
“In our society and military culture, Veterans are taught to avoid,” Tang explained. “How many times has a Veteran heard ‘suck it up?’ In an immediate threat, [avoidance] can help, but in civilian life, it can really affect many veterans.
Tang has treated Veterans at Hines VA since 2013 and recommends five things to help Veterans cope with triggers.
- Avoid avoidance. Avoidance can be a short-term fix, but it tends to worsen the problem over time. It’s helpful to confront safe triggers you’ve wanted to avoid gradually. Some Veterans may need help from a mental health professional.
- Remind yourself where you are and what is happening around you. Repeating simple reminders, like ‘this is not a combat zone,’ and ‘these are only fireworks’ can help reset the brain during a PTSD trigger.
- Change the body’s temperature. Safely lowering body temperatures can quickly remind someone where they are and help quell PTSD triggers. Veterans can take a cold shower, or use an ice pack, ice cubes, frozen vegetables packs or splash cold water.
- Schedule meaningful activities you enjoy. Planning self-care can boost your mood, which can offset the overall impact of stress triggers.
- Prioritize your mental health and seek treatment. VA offers support and care through evidence-based treatments for PTSD, stress and anxiety. VA also offers the PTSD Coach Mobile App that provides information and coping skills to help manage anxiety or distress. To schedule an appointment with Hines VA Trauma Services, call 708-202-4668.
“It’s not always easy, but I cannot emphasize enough that help is out there, and it can help people regain their lives,” said Tang.
This year will be the 10th Independence Day since Solis returned from his last combat deployment in Afghanistan. Like most Independence Days since returning, he plans to spend it away celebrations and large gatherings.
“The fear, the pain – it hurts, but you have to accept it and work through it,” said Solis “It’s the only way I can keep growing.”