PTSD Triggers: Dealing with Fireworks

Hello again!

Today we’re going to talk about specific coping skills for dealing with fireworks.

If you’re ever been in a position where loud noises mean bad stuff is going on, then you might react to the sound of fireworks, because your threat-response reflex has learned that loud bangs are a predictor of danger. (For more background on how reflex learns, read this previous post.)

If your survival reflex at one point learned that a sudden, loud bang means danger, the sound of fireworks will probably make your reflex react, even if the conscious, “smart” part of your brain realizes that it’s just fireworks.

So – what do you do?

Let’s start off with what NOT to do. Your worst bet is to just pretend like it’ll all be fine and do nothing to try to prepare yourself. That’s avoidance, and it doesn’t help. So – give yourself a pat on the back for being proactive and reading this to help yourself prepare.

We’ll talk about two parts: (1) what to do about your feelings; and (2) what to do about the noise.

(1) You might feel shame and anger at yourself for reacting. If you’ve read any of the previous posts – then I hope I’ve drummed into your head that fear is a reflex, and that you do not choose to feel fear. Fear is part of the reflex that responds to threats. It “learns” to respond to triggers based on what happened to you. You don’t have control over it, and blaming yourself for it makes as much sense as feeling guilty that your toenails grow – it just happens, you can’t control that. So – let’s work on getting rid of that shame and guilt, okay?

A more helpful approach is to accept that you’re going to react to triggers; you’ll be more prepared to cope if you expect to feel fear in response to triggers, and manage it when it happens.

If you hear fireworks, your reflex might be to hit the deck and keep your head down. If that noise had been enemy fire, your reaction might have saved your bacon. Respect your reaction for what it is – a survival reflex. You can help calm your fear by reminding yourself that feeling scared and being in danger are two separate things – your fear in this case is a false alarm, and you are safe.

(2) With fireworks in specific – you may actually find it much easier to cope if you look up and watch them. Seeing the show will make it easier to know where that noise is coming from. You can help to ground yourself by saying (or thinking), “These are fireworks. This is a celebration. I’m home, and I’m safe”.

If that’s not an option – on a holiday weekend when you can expect fireworks, finding ways to mask the noise may be your best bet. That might mean staying indoors, windows closed, playing your favourite music loud enough that noise from outside doesn’t filter in.

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Please feel welcome to share this post, and any other on this blog, with anyone who might benefit.

I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is copyrighted. The photo gracing today’s post was taken by Wojtek Rajski, and I’d like to thank him for generously allowing me to use his work. Please do not copy content, including photographs, from Coming Back Home without permission.

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PTSD: Reflex, Roses, and Zebras

Hi there!

Today we’re going to put together what we’ve learned so far. To help us do that, we’re going to re-visit our new friend from last week, the zebra who was triggered by the red roses because his friend George got eaten by a lion while stopping to sniff red flowers.

Well – last week, his survival reflex learned that red flowers are dangerous (because reflex sometimes “learns” to mistake random things for signs of danger). So, his survival reflex sees the roses as a threat, and reacts automatically: before he has a chance to think, his reflex tells him to RUN!!!

Because reflex is automatic, it’s not his choice to feel this way. In fact, the conscious, rational part of his brain might be telling him, “WTF!!! Why am I freaking out? What’s wrong with me? I need to get it together!!!”

He might start worrying that he’s going crazy. He might blame himself, and think that if only he had tried harder, trained harder, or if he was a better, tougher zebra, this wouldn’t have happened to him. He might even tell himself that other zebras have been through worse and seem to be coping better, so he should just suck it up.

So next thing you know, he’s struggling not just with fear, but also with shame and guilt; that’s the foundation of not just PTSD, but depression too.

Look – the point of the story is – don’t be that zebra!!!

When you react to your own version of “red flowers”, by feeling fear – remember, fear is a reflex, and reflex is not a choice. It is not a sign of weakness or failure, any more than not preventing your toenails from growing would be a failure: reflex is not something that we can control by being stronger, by training harder, or by using willpower. Reflex has a mind of its own; it will see something as a danger, even when your rational brain can tell that there’s no risk. Conscious, rational thought is controlled by a different part of your brain than reflex, so it’s entirely possible to be reacting with fear to a trigger, while at the same time being able to realize that it’s harmless.

Knowing this information, you can start to help manage your fear: when your survival reflex goes off, rather than feeling embarrassed or angry with yourself, try to remind yourself that (1) you do not control your survival reflex, and (2) it often sets off false alarms.  These two reminders become the starting point for two important coping tools: one is acceptance, which is learning not to blame yourself. The other is a thought-based grounding skill – a habit of reminding yourself that feeling fear is not a good indicator of danger, and that the fear is just a false alarm.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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PTSD: The Role of Reflex, Part 2: How reflex learns

Hi again!

Today, we’re going to talk about how the survival reflex adapts and learns from experience: it learns differently than the conscious part of your brain does.

Conscious memory works kind of like a librarian: it organizes things by time and topic. So, if you think of your senior year of high school, the memories that might come up would be: the part-time job you had; the goofy haircut and silly clothes; your biggest crush that year… And so on. All these memories are neatly organized, like in a filing cabinet.

Reflex learns very differently. Let’s look at an example:

Imagine a small herd of zebras, enjoying some delicious pasture.

(Yes, I’m purposely trying to pick a story that won’t trigger anyone… I’m hoping no one here ever got attacked by an angry zebra?)

Anyway – our zebra friends are enjoying their lunch, when one of them catches sight of a lion sneaking up on them.

He yells, “LION!!!“, and all the zebras take off running.

Unfortunately, there’s this one zebra… Let’s call him George. George is a chubby, clumsy little zebra. He’s got the goofy haircut, thick glasses, asthma. He always gets picked last for the zebra softball team – you get the picture. He’s not the sharpest crayon in the box, but he really loves flowers. So, the zebras are all running, when all of a sudden – George sees some flowers. Red ones – his favourite. So – George stops to take a good whiff.

I don’t need to tell you what happened next. The lion says George tasted just like chicken.

Here’s how reflex memory works differently than normal memory: reflex memory is not a librarian. It doesn’t care what happened the day before, the week before, or earlier that year. All your reflex cares about is:

What was going on at the time that could have predicted this?“,

and

What can I watch for next time to keep safe?

The problem is, reflex is not smart enough to know the difference between good predictors of danger, and just random stuff that was going on at the time. So, what it thinks of as signs of trouble is usually any reminders of what happened.

If the lion snuck up behind a big rock, the zebra’s reflex will now learn that big rocks are potentially dangerous – so checking around big rocks in the future may be a lesson learned that saves the lives of other zebras.

But, the zebra’s reflex may also learn that red flowers are dangerous. Now – the conscious, rational part of the zebra’s brain will realize that a lion won’t jump out of a flower. But reflex doesn’t work that way.

So… fast forward to Valentine’s Day. Our little zebra sees bouquets of red roses in the grocery store.

(What’s a zebra doing in the grocery store, you might ask? Simple – he’s doing groceries. He doesn’t go to the pasture anymore; he learned that pasture is dangerous).

His reflex has learned that “red flowers are dangerous”, so seeing the roses pushes his “danger” button; he panics, and feels an overwhelming urge to abandon his cart in the middle of the store and run away.

That, in a nutshell, is how reflex learns. And that’s how it reacts, even when the part of your brain that’s responsible for rational thinking tells you there’s nothing to be scared of. Understanding this little nugget of information can become an important tool in managing fear, and we’ll get into more about that in the next few posts.

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I’d love to have you share your thoughts, comments, and questions. If you do post a comment, please don’t give specific details of your trauma – these may be triggering to another reader. If you’d like to offer criticism, I’ll take it – I know I’m not perfect, and I’m always willing to learn. If you do offer criticism though, I’d really appreciate it if you could do so constructively (ie., no name-calling, please). Thanks…

You can find me on Twitter and on Facebook.

~ Dr. Dee Rajska, C. Psych.

*Fine print: Please feel free to share the link to this blog wherever you think it might be helpful! Reading this blog is a good start, but it’s no substitute for professional help. It takes a different kind of courage to admit to yourself that you’re struggling. PTSD is not a sign of failure – it’s a sign that you’ve been through a lot, and have tried to stay strong for too long. If you need help – you’re in some pretty great company. Reach out, and give yourself a chance to feel better.

**Really fine print: The content of Coming Back Home is copyrighted; please feel welcome to share the link, but do not copy and paste content. Unless otherwise noted, all original photography on Coming Back Home is the copyrighted property of Larry M. Jaipaul; please do not copy images without permission.

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