Dealing with Your PTSD (Head-On)
For people struggling with PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), the Fourth of July can bring with it feelings of anxiety and stress.
As an organization, we don’t want people to restructure their lives based on firework schedules and impending fear.
The tips below are designed to help empower those struggling (as well as their loved ones and therapists) to create a calm and healthy experience during which they are able to self-regulate from stress. The goal is to learn how to shift the mindset to be able to integrate mental health challenges into daily life.
Don’t Try to Run Away from Triggers
We can’t hide from life’s difficult moments. If we avoid every situation in which we’re uncomfortable, we become less resilient. Then, when we’re caught off-guard by even a mild fight-or-flight experience, we may have a very strong reaction to it — stronger than seems logical for the situation. In reality, unaddressed and repressed stressful feelings tend to build up, creating bigger outcomes later.
The key is to allow yourself to experience being triggered, while continually checking in with yourself, taking note of feelings, thoughts and bodily responses. Becoming more and more present with the experience will assist the healing of what has formerly been high anxiety or even panic. Gradually working up to higher-level triggers is the best way to go about this.
The question to remember is: can you self-regulate within a few breaths?
If you are able to take a few deep breaths and return to your normal pace of breathing and relative inner calm, you are okay. However, if you still can’t catch your breath and now your heart is racing, this is a sign that this situation is too much for you. Find a quiet place, have a glass of water and sit to soothe yourself. Alternatively, ask a friend to go on a walk around the block with you. If you feel comfortable discussing your PTSD with them, do. Creating emotional vulnerability and connection is useful when overcoming triggered events. If you choose not to discuss your PTSD, focus your attention on relaxing topics of conversation to clear your mind. Notice your feet under you, notice your breath, and focus on being present while speaking and breathing slowly.
Remember: This Isn’t Permanent
After having a negative experience with fireworks, some people cross the idea of watching them off their list for good. Sometimes people go years after an experience without trying it again, for fear of the same response occurring.
The truth is: we change.
We shift our reactions by practicing new ones and by exploring our underlying beliefs that get triggered. We grow through therapy. We gain a deeper understanding of ourselves. We learn more about the chemical imbalances in our mind. We try new methods to self-regulate when stressed.
What you experienced last July 4th or any other day is not a life sentence determining how you will experience your future. PTSD does not have to be permanent. What may seem like a 9 out of 10 on your anxiety scale today may be a 5 next year.
There is no way of knowing for sure what the future holds, so rather than trying to predetermine fate, it’s surely worth looking into all the different options available to release the painful past and move on freely.
And yes, it does take work. It’s crucial to understand that recovering from PTSD is an ongoing experience that is often uncomfortable. This does not mean you are doing it wrong or making the effort less worthwhile. It’s like lifting weights – when it gets really tough is when it’s working.
Accept Whatever Response You Have
Let’s say you think you’re ready to join your friends to shoot off some Roman candles. However, once they start setting them off, you feel panicky — shaking and crying.
You know what? That’s okay. You’ve been through a tough situation and this is how you’re coping with it right now. Please don’t feel shame or judgment towards yourself. Just continue to breathe through it.
Make mental notes of your behavior. If you can use this as a learning experience to create a deeper awareness about why you felt anxious, you can start to create growth and change. If you’re seeing a therapist, bring these notes to discuss at your next session.
How to Help Someone with PTSD
If you’re reading this because you want to know how to help someone with PTSD, know that everyone is not the same. Some people may really appreciate you letting them know what time you’re going to set off fireworks. Others might become offended that you thought you needed to “babysit” them. Others yet might become very uncomfortable that you know they have PTSD.
The best way to offer support is by asking rather than telling.
“Hey, I’m throwing a Fourth of July party – do you have any suggestions for it?”
“I know this time of year can be tough for vets, so just let me know if you need anything.”
These are both far less direct and give the person the space to ask for support. If they do not mention or ask for anything, do not dwell on it. If you instead focus on enjoying your friend’s company, chances are they will be more relaxed too.
If you do see someone become visibly overwhelmed or upset, invite them to talk about it with you. The best thing you can do for someone who’s experienced trauma is to non-judgmentally listen.
Simply being heard is soothing and communicates compassion. Our job is not to try to fix the person, but to offer companionship on the journey to healing. In our program, we find that each unique individual has the inner power and wisdom to find their own best answers, given the right support and the room to self-discover without judgment and excess advice. People DO heal from PTSD.
For additional information on overcoming PTSD and finding support, please see the below resources: