Autumn – a time of vibrant colour foliage, bonfires, cosy nights in, and of course fireworks. Lots and lots of loud, ground-shaking explosive fireworks!
Do you love or hate them? We are a split nation so let’s look at the reasons behind the two camps and what happens in the brain when we are exposed to them.
You love a good fireworks display – the light, noise, and smells of the night. But why?
It’s similar to watching a horror film or going on a roller coaster in many ways. We love to be scared – but only when we know there is control. We like the anticipation of a slightly scary experience, and we carve the euphoric feeling that it gives us. Ever come away from a rollercoaster or fireworks display and felt quite giddy or excited? That’s our brains reacting to our primitive fear response and as well as pumping out adrenaline it will release a hormone called dopamine that’s associated with pleasure. As humans, we love the feeling.
The flash of the firework triggers our fight, flight center in our brain – the amygdala – which detects fear, and we are then rewarded by the boom we were expecting. We love it. The flash of light, the colours, and sparkle, then the anticipation of the boom. This excites us and so we find ourselves mesmerised by the display. Much like a thunderstorm when we see the flash of lightning and we wait for the loud thunder to follow. Again, you will find some people in awe of the storm whilst many others may be found hiding under the blankets. We all perceive the same situations very differently.
Obviously, we also love the explosion of colours at fireworks displays which we cannot pick up on a tv screen or in an Instagram picture. We are fascinated and find it difficult to look away from the lights. This explains why we flock to displays on cold autumn nights to immerse ourselves in the full experience. Our brains react to all the unusual sights, sounds, and smells around us and triggers different parts of our brain which can mean we experience our freeze response as our brain tries to take it all in. We are literally hypnotised by the whole experience.
Now that all sounds exciting to some but to others Guy Fawkes’s night can cause distress and anxiety. We know that most pets and young children hate fireworks, they are simply overwhelmed by all the noise and flashing lights. Their brains cannot make sense of the experience yet and their fight, flight response kicks in, and they are genuinely scared. This is a very normal and healthy response to what the brain considers a life threatening situation. They are unable to understand yet that they are safe despite their feelings of fear.
From a psychotherapist’s view, it’s so interesting to note the different reactions people have to the same situations.
There is the extreme condition called phonophobia where a person may fear loud noises and therefore finds fireworks a terrifying prospect. This is a specific phobia and could be caused by various factors from their past but means the client has an inappropriate fear of the sound of a firework going off. The brain thinks it is helping them to survive by forcing them to flee from the noise even although in general, firework displays are safe. Again, we can find these people taking themselves away from any threat of noise and danger and staying inside. It’s interesting to note that people who hate fireworks are likely to be found cowering around popping Champagnes corks or balloons as it can trigger the same startle response as fireworks.
There is the very real cases of PTSD with some veterans experiencing severe distress when exposed to loud, sudden noises. The loud unexpected sounds can trigger a startle response in some. This can mean they relive traumatic events from the past, experience panic attacks, flashbacks, and even physical reactions such as shaking, sweating, and heart palpitations. The noise from unexpected fireworks can be very distressing and upsetting for many people suffering from PTSD or high anxiety.
Maybe you are ambivalent about fireworks? You like a good display but not enough to venture out on a cold, dark November night.
So where will you be on the 5th of November? The front row of the fireworks display or snuggled up at home?