For many Americans, the fireworks displays that take place across the country are the highlight of Fourth of July weekend, but for others, fireworks can be the trigger of traumatic and painful memories. Loud, sudden noises that sound like gunfire or other explosives can set off post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in combat veterans and it's important to stay sensitive to the needs of those living around us who may be struggling with the memory of traumatic experiences.

While we take part in Fourth of July festivities this weekend, Springer Publishing Company wants to highlight the importance of being respectful to those who suffer from PTSD by explaining the nature of this disorder and how a national tradition can be anything but celebratory for some of the people who continue to fight for our nation's freedom.

The following article is adapted from EMDR Toolbox: Theory and Treatment of Complex PTSD and Dissociation by Jim Knipe, PhD.

 There is a natural, physically based mechanism in all human beings for processing and resolving disturbing or incongruent life experiences. Memories that are disturbing, but not traumatically overwhelming, are processed in the same way that all life experience is processed into memory. Following an event, the person thinks about it, talks about it, and perhaps dreams about it. As this occurs, the recollection of the event connects with memories of other life events, and it then takes its place in whatever context is appropriate within the individual’s overall life narrative.

For example, imagine you are driving home one night after work, and you pass a terrible accident on the highway. There are police there, as well as an ambulance. You are waved on through, but as you go by you see some gruesome things. It would not be surprising if 10 minutes later you still might have flashing pictures in your mind of what you saw. And when you get home, you might talk to someone about it. You might have a dream about it that night. You might think about it again the next morning. Little by little (unless the accident somehow activates your unresolved memory networks), what is likely to happen, over the course of several days, is that the disturbance will become less and less and the memory picture will fade, so that a week later you might pass that same place on the highway and remember it differently. There might be some learning that accompanies the processing—“I need to drive through this part of the highway more carefully”—but you would not feel the same emotional impact of when it first happened. This is how the mind usually processes disturbing events without benefit of therapy.

However, as we know, there is such a thing as psychological trauma, and trauma can be defined in many ways. One simple, clear, and easily understandable way is this: trauma is when the natural information processing system fails, and the memory of the disturbing event becomes dysfunctionally stored within the individual’s memory networks. The information processing system might fail because the event is so terrible and totally outside the person’s previous life experience that it cannot be taken in and understood. Or, sometimes, the information processing system fails because there is a defense in place that prevents the person from perceiving and processing the disturbing memory information.

The result is that the individual’s conscious experience is divided into two distinct and easily recognizable states of mind—you could say, two distinct experiences of self. For example, imagine the situation of the person who barely escapes from a burning building. Before the escape, that person is feeling intense terror, and the thought, “I’m about to die.” And then the person is able to get out of the building safely. The next day, much of this individual’s life is still the same. He might go to the same job, have the same car, have the same people in his life—assuming they all escaped too. However, when there is any reminder of the fire, flashbacks— “relivings”—may intrude into his awareness. This response can occur, undiminished, even a year to 5 or 10 years later if the person happens to smell smoke in the air. The “reliving” images and feelings may flood into the mind in a way that is terribly upsetting, and may give the person a thought: “I must be crazy! I know I survived! Why can’t I just get over this?”

Many associational chains may be feeding feelings of disturbance into a traumatic memory image. As each of the many separate chains or channels of information is considered and processed, “realization” of the event is increased. There is an increased “presentification” with regard to the memory—an increased ability to differentiate between remembered information and perception of what is occurring “right now.” The individual who is thinking of an event in the past, may initially have some increased disturbance (“I now can clearly see the look on his face. I’m feeling that fear more intensely now.”), but may also have increased recognition of positive elements (“I really did survive that!” or, “I see now that I really did the best I could. What happened wasn’t my fault.”) and that increased recognition ultimately lowers disturbance. Once that occurs, any incongruities within that experience can be identified and reconciled, resulting in clarity and a sense of closure. The incongruity between the fear and danger of the past and the safety of the present can be reconciled. And, over the course of an extended therapy process, the incongruity between an experience of separate self-states inside and the realization of having one heart, one brain, and one core self can be reconciled.