fbpx Coping During the 4th of July Celebrations
Authored by Nexus Family Healing on June 29, 2023

The 4th of July, for many, is a fun summer holiday with outdoor festivities, cooking, and fireworks. But for some, this time of year can be stressful. The loud, booming noises and bright colors of fireworks can trigger and overwhelm those living with sensory processing issues, often stemming from conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), or sensory processing disorder (SPD), to name a few.

What is PTSD and Sensory Overload?

PTSD is a psychological disorder that effects millions of adults and children in the U.S. and can develop after a person has experienced a traumatic event. While more common with combat veterans, it happens to civilians as well – people who’ve experienced trauma like childhood abuse, a violent assault, or a bad car accident can develop PTSD after the event and/or series of events. For those with PTSD who experienced a combat zone and/or other traumas with a similar nature, the loud “pops” and “bangs” or the smell of gunpowder can trigger re-experiencing these past traumatic events and cause serious distress.

Sensory overload is when the brain is overwhelmed with the five senses and can’t properly process external stimuli (like the big booms of fireworks). Everyone can experience sensory overload (an overly crowded room, strong smells, overhead lights) but for people who struggle with anxiety and disorders like ASD, PTSD, or SPD, sensory overload causes a more severe reaction to overstimulation. 

Why Do Fireworks Cause Reactions in Certain Individuals, and What Are Those Reactions?

PTSD and sensory overload are often triggered when an individual is overly stimulated. A sudden bang, the burning and smoky smell of lit fireworks, and the continuous visual arousal can be enough to cause a reaction.

A person struggling with PTSD may experience flashbacks and nightmares, heart palpitations and panic attacks, and avoidance of certain situations (like refusing to drive after a car accident). When triggered, they may enter a state of hyper-arousal where their brain goes into fight, flight, or freeze mode, which can create difficulty concentrating and higher irritability. For someone dealing with sensory overload, they may cover their ears or eyes, have difficulty focusing, be irritable, and have high levels of sensitivity to their surroundings. Children may display their overload by having a temper tantrum, running away from the stimuli, or by sitting in the fetal position rocking back and forth.

Tips to Make It Through the Holiday

If being near fireworks is unavoidable, here are some tips for making it through the holiday if you or a loved one are struggling:

  1. If possible, find out when local fireworks are going to happen so you and/or your loved one can know what to expect. If you are caring for a youth, talk to them about their fears and anxieties to help them understand that fireworks won’t hurt them. Some may be able to be around fireworks with headphones and/or at a safe distance, and some may need to stay home. Have healthy coping and exit strategies in place if the stress is too much.  
  2. If you are staying home, prepare a self-care kit – have noise canceling headphones and/or ear plugs and try listing to a favorite audiobook, soothing music, white noise, or nature sounds. Darken your room to avoid any flashing lights. Surround yourself and/or your loved one with your favorite items, scents, people, and/or animals that bring you comfort and happy memories. For children, this could be a blanket or a stuffed animal; for adults, this could be favorite photographs, scent from a candle or flowers, or a grounding object (like a small stone) that you can hold and squeeze in your hand. 
  3. Practice deep breathing and other grounding techniques. There are a variety to choose from, so speak with a mental health professional about what may work for you and/or your loved one and be sure to practice them before a potentially stressful situation. Check out some of our coping skills here. Create sayings like “I am safe” and practice saying them before a potentially triggering event.

For people who are planning on using fireworks for the 4th of July, please be empathetic to your neighbors. Make sure you are following your area’s rules and regulations when it comes to shooting off fireworks and keep them at predictable times so others can know when to expect them. 

Be safe, be kind, and have a good holiday! 

Nexus Family Healing is a national nonprofit mental health organization that restores hope for thousands of children and families who come to us for outpatient/community mental health services, foster care and adoption, and residential treatment. For over 45 years, our network of agencies has used innovative, personalized approaches to heal trauma, break cycles of harm, and reshape futures. We believe every child is worth it — and every family matters. Learn more at nexusfamilyhealing.org.