Every year, in the days leading up to Independence Day, posts on Facebook and Twitter begin popping up addressing combat veterans and the impact fireworks have on those individuals. These posts serve as a gentle reminder and encouragement, asking people to be mindful of their use of fireworks in the days leading up to the 4th of July. Authors frequently ask others to save fireworks for the actual holiday, and even the day before, out of respect for those in the armed forces who may be triggered by sudden loud noises like fireworks. I have also posted information about the negative impact fireworks can have on combat veterans. However, more times than not, individuals with PTSD and or CPTSD are missed or left out of the discussion for sensitivity and awareness of what can happen when unexpected loud noises occur.
For this blog, however, I want to explain how the brain can cause a similar reaction even in non-military, non-combat survivors of trauma. The Central Nervous System (CNS) is where trauma is stored. So, when a situation is experienced as stressful or traumatic, the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) becomes activated. The ANS manages involuntary body/reflexive reactions to situations. ANS is comprised of two separate functions each having their own role. The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) serves to mobilize the person to respond to a threat by activating the body for fight, flight, and at times freeze. The 2nd function of the CNS is called the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). This function of the brain serves for rest, homeostasis, things like digestion.
When an individual has PTSD or CPTSD the unprocessed trauma is stored in the CNS causing unnecessary deployment of the ANS, specifically activating the SNS. The traumatized brain often misfires or over reacts to situations (in this example, loud noises like fireworks.) Intrusive symptoms of PSTD can manifest differently in every individual, making a person susceptible to a particular stress response like fight or flight. This is why some survivors of CPTSD and PTSD who have never seen combat, never been in the military also experience exaggerated and uncontrolled responses to sudden loud noises like fireworks. This is a direct result of having damage in the brain. After a brain is damaged because of trauma an individual develops problems or negative alterations in cognition, and more importantly in this example, increased and heightened arousal and reactivity. This occurs because the SNS is tricked by the traumatized brain and misfires causing a person to unnecessary deploy for action to a threat through fight, flight, or freeze. Though the brain is well intended it can become unmanageable. In the moment a person becomes flooded or triggered, and the SNS kicks in, the person has little to no control of the activation of the ANS response, specifically the SNS. Simply put, a healthy brain can recognize a firework for a firework, a traumatized brain cannot, regardless of the traumatized person’s trauma events or experiences, so reactivity occurs despite the fact that person may have never had reason to fear loud noises. People who have PTSD or CPTSD have less ability to access the PNS when triggered thus making relaxation, calming, breathing harder to access than for a non-traumatized brain and person.
Since 2020 has been a remarkably stressful year, individuals with PTSD and CPTSD regardless of their experiences have been more alert, on edge, more stressed, more hypervigilant. So, on this 4th of July, please consider how difficult this can be for survivors. Many doing their best to anticipate and prepare for this. Please be mindful of these individuals, you may not know who around you struggles with trauma and who may feel triggered by what the rest of us see as fun celebrations.