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Fourth of July Fireworks Can Fuel Anxiety

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The Fourth of July is a time for parades, barbecues with friends and family, remembering our nation's past, and of course firework displays. For families who have been impacted by personal experience with gun violence and have recently been shaken by the shootings in Charleston at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the noise and excitement of the holiday can rattle the nerves. Celebrating without loved ones, noticing the empty seat at the table where a loved one used to sit, another reminder that time marches on. For those who have experienced a traumatic loss, those same fireworks that others blithely enjoy can bring back sudden, uninvited memories of the death of a loved one.

An example was a client of mine I will call Carrie. Carrie's oldest son Jacob was having a difficult time adjusting to life after college. He rarely left his childhood room, and she at first thought that his dark moods were due to a recent breakup with a longtime girlfriend, and the stresses of searching for a job. He seemed different than the boy who had just celebrated graduation, he no longer seemed to laugh or smile, but she knew he was talented and capable, and believed with time he would bounce back to his old self. One afternoon she returned home from grocery shopping to a quiet house, and noticed Josh, her husband's, gun cabinet was left open. She was stunned and heartbroken, and knew in her heart even before she went to Jacob's room that he was dead.

Last Fourth of July, Carrie told me that she was at a friend's house, standing on the cool lawn, and enjoying herself in what felt like the first time in months. The fireworks display began with the band playing "God Bless America," and as the first fireworks exploded she felt her whole body tremble, and felt like her heart would burst out of her chest. With every firework that detonated, she pictured the gunshot that killed Jacob, her mind unwillingly imagining images of that awful day. She became dizzy, and quickly sat on the grass because she was worried she would collapse, certain she was having a heart attack. Luckily, one of her friends present at the party is a nurse, and quickly came over and recognized her symptoms as a panic attack.

If you like Carrie have had a traumatic loss in the last couple of years you might want to consider some of the tips below to manage your stress:

  • Weave flexibility into your plans, allowing yourself to leave celebrations early, or stay home for the day if you are overwhelmed.
  • Talk about your loss with other survivors who understand what you are experiencing.
  • Remember that although panic attacks are terrifying, and physically and emotionally draining, they will end. You will survive.

Remember that although your reactions to the day's celebrations are different from others, they are entirely normal. You must give yourself room to heal at your own pace, and in your own way. On a day that is about celebrating freedom, give yourself the freedom to honor your feelings and celebrate how you wish.

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If you -- or someone you know -- need help, please call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. If you are outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of international resources.