Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System
Psychologist Addresses Fireworks PTSD Triggers
BILOXI, Miss. – As the nation prepares to celebrate its 244th birthday July 4, the Gulf Coast Veterans Health Care System (GCVHCS) is reminding community members that celebrations associated with this day can cause stress for Veterans.
Some Veterans can experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) symptoms – sometimes triggered by one of the most recognizable 4th of July traditions, a fireworks display – during the holiday, according to Dr. Joni Utley, a GCVHCS psychologist and the organization’s PTSD Clinic lead.
“The 4th of July can be a difficult time for our Veterans as holidays commemorating national freedom and sacrifice understandably remind them of the most heroic and often traumatic moments of their own service to our nation,” she said. “For our combat Veterans in particular, these memories may involve death or serious injury to fellow service men and women whom they often consider to be the closest and most significant relationships of their lives.”
Utley added that flashing lights, explosions and even the smell of fireworks can serve as a trigger for some Veterans, whose reactions to these can vary. She also said that several fireworks celebrations – historically scheduled at specific times in Gulf Coast area cities – have been cancelled, prompting individual celebrations to occur at random times.
“Unexpected triggers are particularly challenging for those with PTSD,” she said. “Neurobiologically, changes have occurred in the brain with PTSD and so when there is an unexpected noise, smell, or situation that mimics the training, Veterans’ flight/flight/freeze response gets activated, which causes physiological responses such as increased heart rate and shallow breathing, and the PTSD survivor typically will then avoid or escape the situation.”
Utley said that for Veterans experiencing a response to unexpected fireworks celebrations, there are several techniques individuals can use to calm themselves.
“Grounding techniques can be tremendously helpful to manage triggers,” she said. “Physical, mental and soothing grounding methods such as taking a brisk walk, slowed diaphragmatic breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, mental distraction and meditation can make a huge difference.”
According to Utley, with evidence-based PTSD treatments, GCVHCS PTSD clinic employees work with Veterans, approaching triggering situations in a very specific and safe way to eventually work through and overcome these responses. She added that the VA has developed several useful apps to lead Veterans through these coping skills: PTSD Coach, Virtual Hopebox and the VA Mindfulness app are all available for Veterans or caregivers suffering from PTSD or trauma-related symptoms.
According to Utley, individuals planning on using fireworks during individual 4th of July celebrations are encouraged to contact Veterans in their Gulf Coast area communities, an outreach which not only demonstrates an understanding of a Veteran’s particular situation but can also serve to show an appreciation for their service.
“Just letting these Veterans know they’re thought of can be an enormous benefit to recovering Veterans,” she said. “Especially now, everyone is feeling more isolated and disconnected, and connecting in safe ways and demonstrating compassion can certainly assist Veterans in times of increased stress.”
Utley added that although the ongoing global pandemic has impacted numerous activities, the GCVHCS has remained open, tailoring services to ensure continuity of care for Veterans using the organization’s facilities from Biloxi, Mississippi, to Panama City Beach, Florida.
“We [the GCVHCS] have always remained open,” she said. “We’ve been able to provide care to Veterans virtually through video conferencing and telephone calls and have always been here to ensure our Veterans continue receiving the care they deserve. Our PTSD Specialty team’s trauma-focused treatments are effectively delivered through these technologies [VA Video Connect], enabling Veterans to continue to be seen and get better despite challenges caused by this ongoing health crisis.”
VA Video Connect, a mobile application designed to provide an alternative to a traditional visit to a Veteran’s health care team, is providing both GCVHCS staff and Veterans – particularly those living a significant distance from their VA healthcare facility – the opportunity to remotely continue their healthcare.
“This technology gives Veterans the chance to participate in remote medical appointments with their provider,” said GCVHCS Facility Telehealth Coordinator Michelle Wilkerson. “Using the [mobile] app, a Veteran can either chat or have a video consultation with their healthcare team or provider from almost anywhere.” The Biloxi Veterans Affairs (VA) Medical Center, along with the Mobile, Pensacola, Eglin and Panama City VA Clinics are all part of the GCVHCS, which is headquartered in Biloxi, Mississippi, and provides a variety of medical outpatient services to more than 70,000 Veterans.