Bonfire Night is a cause for celebration throughout the UK, bringing communities together at shared events and frequently producing spectacular firework displays that live long in the memory.
The night commemorates the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which a plan by Roman Catholic activists to assassinate the King and his ministers by blowing up the Palace of Westminster was foiled.
The impact on British history had the attack been successful is impossible to measure, but would undoubtedly have been hugely profound. Yet Bonfire Night can be a difficult occasion for those who have been responsible for protecting the UK and its institutions in the modern era.
For veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the sights, sounds and smells of Bonfire Night can be an unwelcome trigger for upsetting and frightening memories of conflict.
Yet, if you or your loved ones are affected by this, there are steps that you can take to help make it easier.
Our specialist clinical team here at Combat Stress, gives the following advice:
1. Plan your evening
The first thing to think about is how to you want to spend the evening - and whether you might like to go out. Bonfire Night can be a useful opportunity to begin to 'break the link' between current triggers and past dangers - by focusing on what is different about fireworks and your environment (this video explains more).
It may be that being exposed to such strong triggers feels too much at present. If that is the case, think about where you will be on Bonfire Night, and prepare using some of the 'grounding and soothing' techniques described below.
2. Identify your triggers
Different people will react to fireworks in different ways. Some veterans may find the smells around Bonfire Night can trigger strong feelings and difficult memories. If this is the case, it can be helpful to carry a competing smell to 'bring you back' to the present. Sometimes people use calming smells such as lavender or peppermint. For others, it is more helpful to use a strong smell such as Olbas oil or smelling salts.
For some veterans, the sound and sight of fireworks and sharp, ricocheting light can be very triggering. Being prepared is important: be aware that there are often fireworks parties on the nights before and after Bonfire Night. If you are expecting this, it can take you less by surprise.
The most powerful tool we have to calm our body is our breath. It is important to breathe at a pace that feels comfortable for you, but ensure that your out-breaths are long and slow. This will calm your nervous system. These simple techniques can allow you to calm yourself during a panic attack and help to reduce your anxiety.
4. Stay grounded
The aim of grounding techniques is to bring you into the here and now. These can be helpful if you are feeling zoned out or getting vivid memories.
- Notice five things in the room using each of the senses in turn (something you can see, hear, touch, smell and taste).
- Physically ground yourself - squats, stamping feet, taking off shoes and rubbing them on the carpet can help you to 'come back' into the room if you are feeling as though your body is going numb. It can help to find a "grounding" position: a physical position in which you feel safe and/or strong. Some people find that curling up is comforting, while others adopt a more upright stance with shoulders back.
- Develop a "grounding" image - this is a visual picture which can soothe and distract you from a flashback or nightmare. Think about it in great detail: what do you see, hear, feel and smell (see here for more).
- Listen to music that you enjoy, and that helps you feel calm or gives you positive feelings
5. Explain your situation
It might be useful to tell someone close to you that you find Bonfire Night difficult. This can make it easier to go to an event for just a short while and leave when you need to. You'll also have someone who'll be able to acknowledge the effort you have made.
You can also contact the Combat Stress free 24-hour Helpline for help and support. Call us on 0800 138 1619, text us on 07537 404 719 or email email@example.com