Fireworks, Thunderstorms and Sirens

I’ll never forget being in the car with my mom who was driving us home one afternoon when she heard the sirens of the fire trucks. “Oh my God, oh my God, I hope it’s not our house!” and she stepped on the gas and floored it. It was like she was in a panic and couldn’t get home fast enough. I told her I doubted it was our home, but I don’t think she even heard me – she just wanted to get home. It wasn’t our home, and when she pulled up and saw it wasn’t, she breathed a huge sigh of relief and gave a shaky smile. I was a teenager then and thought most of her behavior was suspect, but this incident stayed with me.

Eventually I pieced it together. Five years after my mom was born in Germany, Hitler came to power. She was 17 when the war ended. If you google top ten bombing raids of WWII, my mom’s hometown, Kassel, is ranked number nine with 80% of its population gone by the end of the war. She lived through many bombing raids, always initiated by sirens. Before the city was entirely decimated, she and others would take the train to a school outside the city and they’d arrive home at the end of the day. She often told the story of how coming home one day, there had been a bombing raid. As each of her group of friends walked home, they grew quiet because they didn’t know what to expect. One friend’s home was gone and only her grandmother remained, waiting for her granddaughter. Everyone was afraid to go home. Mom got there and the apartment building she and her family lived in survived. She never forgot the relief she felt – and the guilt because her home was still there while many of her friends’ homes weren’t. Mom had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, PTSD, and in hearing a siren while she was driving home, she had a flashback. No wonder she panicked.

The fireworks for the 4th of July are beautiful and fun but they can be stressful for many of us, including our animals. Each year on July 3rd there’s an electric parade where I live – it’s at night and the cars and people are decorated in lights and it’s fun to watch. A firetruck was going down the street and the driver unexpectedly blew his horn and I almost screamed and  jumped out of my chair. I have a very healthy startle reflex because of my PTSD and while I’m OK with fireworks, I can definitely see how upsetting they can be – the loud noise, the flashing lights, I get it.

Post traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that is caused by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event something traumatic. It can come from a natural disaster, accident, violence of any kind – verbal, physical, domestic or sexual abuse, or military combat. It’s a wide category and I believe suicide attempts and deaths are traumatic events.

Symptoms include hypervigilance (startle reflex), nightmares, irritability, emotional numbness, decreased concentration, always being on guard for danger, and sleep disturbances to name a few. They can vary in intensity over time but a car backfire or report on the news about sexual assault may trigger a flashback memory of the event. There is help available and in a previous post I talk about treatments and ways to manage PTSD.

But what about if you live with someone with PTSD or it’s cousin, Acute Stress Disorder, which is when a person has severe stress symptoms during the first month after a traumatic event.
How can you help them?

  • You can be willing to listen to them, empathically, and calmly. Try not to push them to talk to you or give you more information though. Let them know you’re willing to listen, you care and you want to help them when they are ready to talk.
  • Choose a good time and place to talk. When you’re both ready, when they’re ready and you’re open and can truly be present with them, decide on a quiet place with a block of free time. You want to be free from distractions, so you can participate in the conversation, ask questions when you’re confused about something, but listen and do your best to hear them. Another helpful post to remind you about conversations stoppers is I Know How You Feel.
  • It doesn’t have to be discussed in one setting or one day. Take a break if you think things are getting intense or emotions are starting to escalate. If you sense things your loved one needs a break, that’s fine. Just make sure you follow through and continue the conversation another day.
  • Get help. Try to get professional help for your loved one so they can learn how to handle the intense emotions or flashbacks and process the event. You can always call the Lifeline – 1-800-273-8255 or text HOME to 741 741 if you think the person is thinking about killing themselves too.
  • Take care of yourself. You need care too so be gentle with yourself, do something nice for yourself, take a walk, bubble bath, meet with a friend, go fishing, whatever it is. Don’t be afraid to practice what you preach and go for help too if things feel overwhelming or you need help with all this.

There are some great websites and resources out there. My Healthy Place has a PTSD test – https://www.healthyplace.com/ptsd-and-stress-disorders/ptsd/ptsd-test-do-i-have-ptsd and an article on PTSD vs combat PTSD. The VA has a lot of information on PTSD as well – the National Center for PTSD – www.ptsd.va.govand for families, there is Caregivers on the Homefront – http://caregivers-homefront.org.

 

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