July 4 fireworks could trigger trauma and pain for people with mental health challenges

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Fireworks may spark “flashbacks and traumatic memories” for people with mental health conditions, says psychologist Moe Gelbart. Courtesy of Getty Images.

Fireworks are a common Independence Day tradition, but colorful and loud explosions could be debilitating for those with mental health conditions.  For veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and people with autism, the holiday may mean stress and anxiety.

“[Fireworks] could bring up flashbacks and traumatic memories,” explains Dr. Moe Gelbart, director of behavioral health at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. He says a sound or a flash of light can also produce severe anxiety and turn into panic attacks. 

Another concerning factor is that holiday fireworks often go on for hours, potentially leaving long-lasting damage for those with PTSD and other illnesses. “It's not a one-time explosion. When it's an ongoing thing over and over … it builds on itself and becomes uncontrollable,” says Gelbart.

For veterans with PTSD, fireworks can “jolt them right back into a memory or a flashback and produce severe anxiety,” says Dr. Moe Gelbart. Photo by Shutterstock.

The psychologist emphasizes that surprise and unpredictability could also be harmful as people often do not know when their neighbors will set off small fireworks such as cherry bombs. “All of a sudden — out of nowhere — come a few explosions, and that becomes much more startling because we haven't mentally or physically prepared ourselves for what's to come.”

In addition to sounds of fireworks exploding and crowds celebrating, the scent of sulfur can be triggering. “It's the smell. It's the light. It's the flash. It's the crowds. It's the noise of the crowds … for some people, it brings up memories.” 

The mental health expert says if you have family members who are sensitive to noise, the first step in comforting them is understanding “different people hear things differently.”

“We need to have an awareness and an understanding of the challenges that some people have. And if they're in our family, it's our responsibility to prepare them and protect them.”

Gelbart also advises families to have contingency plans such as preparing earplugs or headphones to drown out some of the noise. “A big part of this pain that one feels is the unexpectedness like, ‘Oh my gosh, what was that?’ So being prepared and having a sense of what's going to come can help.”



Chery Glaser


Darrell Satzman