Wildfires can be particularly stressful because the factors that influence their strength and direction can change at any moment. Communities that seem clear of danger can suddenly need to evacuate. Despite well-orchestrated and persistent fire fighting by emergency services personnel, sometimes destruction of life and property is unpreventable.
It is common for people who have lived through these circumstances to experience strong emotions. Understanding normal responses to these abnormal events can aid you in coping effectively with your feelings, thoughts and behaviors as you recover from the fire.
What happens when people experience a disaster or traumatic event?
Shock and denial are typical responses to large-scale natural disasters, especially shortly after the event. Both shock and denial are normal protective reactions.
Once the initial shock subsides, reactions vary from one person to another. These are common responses to a traumatic event:
Feelings become intense and sometimes are unpredictable.
You may become more irritable than usual, and your mood may change back and forth dramatically. You might be especially anxious or nervous, or even become depressed.
Thoughts and behavior patterns are affected.
You might have repeated and vivid memories of evacuating or seeing the fire approach. These flashbacks may occur for no apparent reason and may lead to physical reactions such as rapid heartbeat or sweating. You may find it difficult to concentrate or make decisions, or become more easily confused. Sleep and eating patterns also may be disrupted.
Recurring emotional reactions are common.
Reminders or “triggers” such as smoke, ash, sirens, or fire trucks can create anxiety.
Interpersonal relationships can become strained, particularly if you are living in temporary housing.
You may experience arguments with family or friends. On the other hand, you might become withdrawn and isolated and avoid your usual activities.
Physical symptoms may accompany the extreme stress.
For example, headaches, nausea, and chest pain may result and may require medical attention. Pre-existing medical conditions may worsen due to the stress.
It is important to realize that there is no one “standard” pattern of reaction to the extreme stress of traumatic experiences.
How can I help myself and my family?
There are a number of steps you can take to help restore emotional well being and a sense of control in your life, including:
Give yourself time to adjust.
Anticipate that this will be a difficult time in your life. Allow yourself to mourn the losses you have experienced.
Ask for support from people who care about you and who will listen to your concerns.
If those closest to you also have experienced or witnessed the wildfire, realize that they may not be able to be as supportive as usual.
Turn it off and take a break.
You may want to keep informed, but try to limit the amount of news you take in whether it’s from the internet, television, newspapers, or magazines. While getting the news informs you, being over exposed to the news can actually increase your stress.
Find out about local support groups that are available for those who have suffered as a result of wildfires.
Particularly those that are led by appropriately trained and experienced professionals such as psychologists. These groups can be especially helpful for people with limited personal support systems.
Engage in healthy behaviors to enhance your ability to cope with excessive stress.
Eat well-balanced meals, get some exercise and try to rest. If you experience ongoing difficulties with sleep, you may be able to find some relief through relaxation techniques. Avoid alcohol and drugs because they can suppress your feelings rather than help you to manage or lessen your distress. They can also intensify your emotional or physical pain.
Establish or reestablish routines such as eating meals at regular times and following an exercise program.
Schedule some breaks to distract yourself from thinking about the fire and focus instead on something you enjoy. Try to do something that will lift your spirits.
Avoid major life decisions such as switching jobs, making large purchases, or making sudden changes in your relationships.
These activities have their own stresses that can exacerbate your current circumstances.
When should I seek additional help?
Some people are able to cope effectively with the emotional and physical demands brought about by natural disasters such as wildfires by using their own support systems. Serious problems, however, can persist and continue to interfere with daily living. For example, some may feel overwhelming nervousness or lingering sadness that adversely affects job performance and interpersonal relationships.
Individuals with prolonged reactions that disrupt their daily functioning should consult with a trained and experienced mental health professional. Psychologists and other appropriate mental health providers help educate people about normal responses to extreme stress. These professionals work with individuals affected by trauma to help them find constructive ways of dealing with the emotional impact.
With children, continual and aggressive emotional outbursts, serious problems at school, preoccupation with the fire, continued and extreme withdrawal, and other signs of intense anxiety or emotional difficulties all point to the need for professional assistance. A qualified mental health professional such as a psychologist can help such children and their parents understand and deal with their thoughts, feelings and behaviors.
Thanks to psychologists Raymond F. Hanbury, PhD, ABPP, Jana Martin, PhD, and APA Div. 42.
This article was reprinted with permission by the American Psychological Association (APA).