With more fireworks booming, doctors worry about veterans with PTSD

Fireworks in Philadelphia
Photo credit Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Veterans are trained to perceive threats and hunker down to protect themselves and those around them, according to Dr. Hetty Eisenberg, medical director of the PTSD clinical team at the Philadelphia Veteran Affairs Medical Center. Loud fireworks can trigger flashbacks to battle, and those sudden booms can have lasting effects.

“We call them re-experiencing symptoms,” said Eisenberg, “so a patient may be taken back to a traumatic memory, either from combat or other situations where they felt threatened and the lives of their comrades were threatened and they may have died.”

Vets may also suffer severe anxiety, which can cause them to withdraw from others. “It can cause people to want to not be around people, to try to isolate. It can be distressing on many levels,” she said, which can ultimately worsen PTSD symptoms or reverse any progress made from treatment.

“Let’s say a veteran may be trying to enjoy the day at home, relaxing with his family or whatever, and trying to take it easy, and he starts hearing noises like this and it immediately puts him into a state of heightened anxiety,” she described. “The veteran may be looking around, scoping the perimeter, making sure everything is safe — immediately being worried that their life and the lives of their family might be on the line.”

Eisenberg said loved ones should let their veteran isolate in a safe place in the house, maybe with a pet, during the holiday fireworks. Look for warning signs for when they may need help, like increased anger, alcohol and drug use, or more frequent isolation.

“Certainly if it seems to be accompanied by any kind of worsening depression or expressed thoughts of wanting to hurt themselves, that’s very concerning,” she noted. “They really hate this time of year. … Any loud noise serves as a trigger.”

The VA hospital is open to help, and it also has resources online.

“If they need help, they should please come,” Eisenberg advised.