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Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

a condition caused by a traumatic experience, with symptoms like intense memory flashbacks or dreams

Most of us at some points in our lives experience a psychological trauma, which means being involved in a life-threatening situation or witnessing a death or serious injury. Trauma can either be single (such as a fire or a road traffic accident) or complex (events or situations that happen again and again, such as childhood abuse or domestic violence).

After experiencing trauma, we are likely to notice some changes in our mood, to feel more anxious, or to find it hard to sleep. For most of us, these difficulties are temporary and they pass after a few months. But for some of us, these difficulties continue for many months or even years. When this happens, we may go on to develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Definitions

NHS Scotland define PTSD as trauma and all of the following:

  • Re-experiencing (eg dreams or intrusive thoughts about what happened)
  • Avoiding places, people or activities that remind us of the trauma
  • Altered feelings or mood (eg depression, anxiety, agitation)

Complex PTSD has three additional criteria:

  • Emotional dysregulation (eg anger, panic attacks)
  • Feeling worthless or a failure
  • Difficulties with close relationships

Factors

It is not possible to predict who will develop PTSD, but some factors that make it more likely are:

  • Lack of social support and positive role models
  • Previous trauma or witnessing trauma happening to someone else
  • Multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences such as physical abuse, or living with someone who misused alcohol or spent time in prison
  • Life stressors, particularly if they are multiple and long term such as poverty, unemployment, ill health, racism
  • Genetic neurological factors

However, the good news is that we can recover from PTSD if we take some concrete steps and get support. Some of us need support through our GP, but it is important to also talk about our thoughts and feelings to friends, family or people who have had similar experiences in our community. Taking some exercise, even a short walk every day, watching what we eat and drink and learning what is going on in our brains and bodies will also help.

With some understanding of the common symptoms of PTSD, we can get back some sense of control and develop self-soothing strategies, for example belly breathing to reduce feelings of panic.

These are not easy steps and it does take some work, but acceptance and support from other people can overcome feelings of shame and enable us to recover. Remember, “Trauma is history, not destiny!”

Fireworks and PTSD/C-PTSD

Those living with PTSD and C-PTSD can find days traditionally celebrated with fireworks incredibly problematic. The fireworks are not the problem itself, but PTSD is putting people in a heightened state of alertness – physically, mentally and emotionally. The sudden, loud sounds of fireworks and flashing lights can cause an exaggerated fear response.

Contrary to the common belief, not only war veterans diagnosed with PTSD are affected by fireworks. For instance, a car accident survivor may get startled and frightened by the sudden flashing lights, while someone who has PTSD from a home burglary may mistake the rattling of windows caused by fireworks for the sound of someone trying to break into their house.

If you or someone you know might find fireworks challenging, here are a few practical tips to create a more comfortable experience for yourself or offer support for these events.

Plan ahead

It can be helpful to create a detailed plan for your day. It can provide a sense of control and help you feel more prepared for whatever comes your way. When planning, include breaks or quiet moments for yourself if needed. During these periods, try to schedule fun and distracting activities to help you relax, lift your mood and unwind from any symptoms or emotions that may arise.

Remind yourself you are safe

In moments of distress, grounding yourself in the knowledge that you are secure can be a powerful coping strategy. Simple, helpful reminders like: “These are only fireworks”, or “I’m not in danger” can help reset your brain during a triggering experience. It is essential to practice this technique repeatedly before experiencing triggers, as attempting to learn a new skill while triggered can be extremely difficult.

Communicate boundaries and establish a support buddy system

Let friends and family know about your feelings and boundaries. Clear communication helps them understand how to support you during the event. Identify someone you trust to be your support person. Having a friend or family member by your side can provide reassurance and understanding.

Choose a comfortable location with familiar items

Choose a secure location, whether at home or a private event, to prioritise your safety. Bring familiar items like a favourite movie or soothing music for comfort and control. If you plan to stay home, consider getting a weighted blanket. With the pressure applied to your body, your nervous system starts to relax, encouraging serotonin production.

Use noise-cancelling gear and keep it dark

Consider using noise-cancelling headphones or earplugs to minimise the impact of sudden loud sounds. If flashes of light bother you, keep the environment dark to minimise visual triggers.

Breathing and grounding

Practice deep breathing to counter anxiety. Deep breaths signal the brain to calm down. In a crisis, repeat this practice for effectiveness. Try slow breathing, emphasising belly (diaphragmatic) breathing. Inhale for 3-4 counts, exhale for 6-8 counts. Focus on the cool air in and the warm air out. Try grounding techniques such as feeling the texture of an object or observing your surroundings. Imagine blowing out candles on a cake. Collectively, these techniques help signal safety to the brain.

contact

Our Advice and Support Service is open Monday to Friday, 10 am to 4 pm, where advisers can signpost you to local support that most fits your needs, including our Change Mental Health services. We offer initial advice on money worries and help to deal with emergencies.

Contact 0808 8010 515, email us at advice@changemh.org or fill out the enquiry form on the Advice and Support Service page.

Our Signature Project runs in Edinburgh. It is a men-only service to which men have to be referred by emailing signature@changemh.org

 

 

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