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Why do we love and hate fireworks?

Lots of people love the idea of attending firework displays. It may be because they love the thrill of the other-worldly lights and noises, despite the sense of danger it may elicit. Engaging in risky behaviours releases chemicals called dopamine in the brain which feel good, even though we know that many people are hurt by fireworks every year.

For some it reminds us of childhood where we would watch the fireworks in awe, enjoying the heat on our faces from the bonfire and feeling powerful when waving sparklers to make shapes in the night sky. We may have been conditioned to be thrill-seekers; to revel in the anticipation of what may or may not happen when playing games, watching movies or firework displays.

Why do some people react badly to fireworks?

It is not only veterans of war who experienced high levels of stress when surrounded by loud bangs and flashes of light that do not enjoy Bonfire night (and the weeks/months surrounding the date). Many other traumatic experiences can leave a person susceptible to stress and anxiety; vehicular accidents, terrifying plane journeys, physical assault and so on. People with autism or sensory processing disorder may also find fireworks extremely distressing. For some, the reason may be unknown to them. They may have been conditioned by their caregivers to respond with fear or have suppressed memories that leave lingering responses in the mind and body.

Polyvagal Theory and the Window of Tolerance

It has long been recognised that humans will respond to perceived threats of danger with fight, flight, freeze, fawn or flop reactions. It is suggested that there is a part of our brain and nervous system that we inherited from our ancestors and are unable to control. This theory has been developed further by Stephen Porges with his Polyvagal theory of the vagus nervous system which connects our brain and body and is responsible for how we learn to deal with threats. To put it simply, depending on our earlier experiences and the level of threat perceived, we will either enter an action mode or shut down, like a deer caught in headlights. However, if we’re fortunate, we may experience social engagement with a safe loved one and learn to regulate our emotions and responses. When we move into action or shut down states, this is described as moving outside of our Window of Tolerance or into hyper or hypo-arousal states. The window or zone may be increased or reduced depending on experiences, our environment and by learning ways to overcome stress.

How can we prepare for events with fireworks and stay in our Window of Tolerance?

  • Ask neighbours to inform you when they will be setting off fireworks

  • Invest in noise cancelling earphones

  • Use scented candles or essential oils

  • Eat well and avoid alcohol, caffeine or drugs which may exacerbate anxiety and stress

  • Be physically active before the event or engage in mindfulness activities

  • Listen to music, audiobooks or sounds of nature which helps you feel calm

  • Practice grounding techniques such as focusing on things you can see, smell or touch, breathing exercises (breathe in, hold for 4 seconds, breathe out, hold for 4 seconds and repeat). There are many guided meditation apps available but it is recommended you practice using these when not feeling distressed so it is easier to implement them when they are needed urgently (expanding that window)

  • Book a trip away to somewhere remote

  • Connect with trusted friends and family members who have an understanding of your needs

  • Be kind to yourself (it’s not your fault loud noises cause you difficulties)

  • Remind yourself the event will soon pass

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