‘Remember, remember the 5th of November’ – a saying that outside of the UK usually elicits many a puzzled expression since it’s a wholly British tradition. For those out of the loop, this saying stems back to the 15th century and involves burning a dummy known as a Guy, named after the man who was arrested for the gunpowder plot against parliament.
In more recent years the traditions have waned in favour of more simplistic events that usually revolve around firework displays and burning bonfires. However, the complications of such a celebration should be considered, especially when fireworks are so easily available on the market for all to enjoy at home without the need for attending pre-planned public displays.
While the impact on animals is widely acknowledged, it is becoming more common to accept how this sort of event can harm those dealing with mental illness that involves reliving traumatic memories.
From a historical point of view, traumatic behaviours from military combat were referred to as ‘shell shock’ or ‘Da Costa’s Syndrome’ before later becoming known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This was first acknowledged in the aftermath of the Vietnam War as soldiers leaving the battlefields began to struggle with reliving the trauma of their time in combat. However, PTSD itself can manifest from a substantial range of life experiences including sexual abuse, road accidents, violence, and terrorist attacks, among many others. Common symptoms of PTSD include recurring flashbacks, anxiety, avoiding people and places, difficulty concentrating, and disruption of sleep patterns. These negative behaviours can lead to the breakdown of personal and social relationships as individuals withdraw and instead perhaps turn to alcohol and substance abuse as a coping mechanism.
More recently scientists have discovered that the brain structures of traumatised soldiers and children change in the same way. Diagnosing or even anticipating PTSD is a minefield. Some may not feel symptoms until years after the event, some may experience the same trauma with no ill effect at all, and some may become so debilitated that their lives spiral downward as they struggle to cope. What is clear, though, is the increase of onset of PTSD as the ever-easy access to worldwide news means accepting everyday trauma into our own world, even if we aren’t living it out ourselves.
The rise of terrorist acts, natural disasters, and the increasingly negative view of our environment have already been known to decrease our mental health and increase stress. This could be something as simple as feeling threatened when in a busy public space or the arrival of colder weather where deadly flu viruses are widespread and fatal.
The fight or flight instinct is something that has been stitched into our behaviours as far back as we can remember, but what is disputed now is how this system is instead malfunctioning in a modern world that contains many triggers for this survival technique and is actually causing us more harm than good. Those in a military role would depend on this tactic to anticipate and survive dangerous events, but switching it on and off as they move from active duty to everyday life isn’t as simple as it sounds. You can’t remove yourself from the battlefield just because you’ve hung up your uniform; your psychological processing will instead struggle to determine what is a true threat and what is an everyday occurrence with zero danger linked to it.
A car backfiring, an image in a newspaper, or the sound of a familiar voice can cause these debilitating flashbacks, so imagine what the bang of a rogue firework can do when you’ve had to deal with the danger of hidden explosives.
In recent years war veterans have urged the public to keep in mind how their own displays can cause unwarranted stress to people in their community as the demand for help increases during this period of celebration. Those who are likely to be distressed by these events are given various tips on how to cope such as using grounding techniques to help avoid horrifying flashbacks; this involves using our senses to induce a calm state of mind. Some tactics can include replicating sounds and smells that bring you joy, for example, the smell of a candle or the touch of a blanket, or physically concentrating on the sensation of your feet on the ground to know where your physical presence is rather than your psychological one.
However, as a community, we can also identify our role in helping those in our area who are facing this difficult and triggering time of year. Instead of planning our own back garden firework spectacle, why not consider attending a public display? Not only will it be safer for the crowds attending as proper procedures will be put in place, but it gives more of a chance for those living with PTSD to manage their symptoms during such a difficult time if there is a reduced risk of residential areas unexpectedly setting off fireworks. Of course, we can’t expect all fireworks to be eradicated in favour of public displays, but being mindful of our own actions means we can help those that live around us.
For veteran mental health support, please contact Combat Stress.
Katie Bagshawe is currently a Student Diagnostic Radiographer at the University of Derby. She holds an MSc in Psychology from Sheffield Hallam University.