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Surviving the Fires – Emotional Changes

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Surviving the Fires – Emotional Changes

Are you a survivor of the forest fires ravaging Ventura county and moving into Santa Barbara county, California?  What emotional changes are normal at this point in the fires and what can you do to gain your balance back as quickly as possible?

If so, this information is for you, written as a psychologist.  That said, I took notes as I went through it myself this week, evacuating as I saw the flames not far from my home.  I will break my notes down into shorter pieces to post here.

As I write this, one week after it began,  I see smoke and haze out every window, and have a new air filter machine humming in the background. This has really helped the air quality inside.

It’s Surreal

Feeling or experiencing what many are calling surreal is not the psychological term, that describes art.  Instead, we break down mental, physical and emotional sensations and experiences into the terms depersonalization and derealization.

The first describes how you feel as a person or inside of yourself, and the second describes how you are experiencing your environment or surroundings.  If you are feeling this way, read more details about it here https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depersonalization-derealization-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352911, but understand that momentary sensations of depersonalization and derealization when faced with a trauma like a firestorm down the block is NOT something to worry about. Nor is high anxiety, as long as you can still keep moving and getting out of harm’s way. All of these feelings are understandable under the circumstances.  And they should go away on their own. If you are an anxious person normally, take that into consideration and try some of my suggestion below.

A traumatic experience, by definition, is outside of normality. It takes your brain some time to decipher, categorize and encode what’s going on. This can feel very strange as it’s occurring and unfolding. The feelings can last for seconds or minutes or longer.  They can come and go  throughout the coming days as you process what is occurring and how things are changing in your life and surroundings or those of someone close to you.

Certainly some, more than others, of the people affected by the sudden or fast-moving forest fires, are experiencing a trauma unfolding before them and feeling the changes within themselves. Receiving the “extreme emergency evacuate now” texts can send terror through the body and mind. Some people are given no chance to get their pets much less important items. And I heard some people interviewed on the news say that they knew their house was burning when they saw it on the news. That’s traumatic too, as is going to your lot after the fact. Don’t go alone and don’t stay longer than you can handle it. There is nothing gained by that.

What not to Do

Please don’t worry about the odd feelings you may be having.  This is the time for patience with yourself and loved ones. Ground yourself by focusing on your feet and feel them on the ground and the chair you are sitting on.  If feelings of depersonalization or derealization  stay with you for days and don’t relent, then call a psychologist or psychiatrist for an evaluation.

Don’t avoid sleeping and resting. Take it easy on yourself. Stress is exhausting when it’s traumatic and sudden and overwhelming.  There are OTC supplements, teas and herbs that can help you sleep better. Emergen-C makes Emergen-zzzzzzz, with melatonin for sleep, magnesium to calm anxiety, other vitamins, and C, that helps your immune system.

Poor air quality and stressful times eat away at your natural healing system, your immune system, so help it by sleeping enough and eating healthy foods, avoiding low quality carbs, sugars, and too much alcohol or overuse of prescription drugs for numbing and calming.

What to Do

Your best bet right now is to put yourself in the company of people who care about you and will stay with you at least until the crisis passes. Lean on them, letting them help you.

It will help you to take action as you can through the coming hours and days, doing whatever normally helps you relax or at the least, takes your mind somewhere else specifically. For example, making something simple with an art or craft or food. While doing this, feel the substances in your hands, take in the smells, colors, and textures. Look at what you are making as you are making it. Or dance to music, exercise or do yoga (inside locations while the air is bad) and feel every part of your body move on the ground beneath you, listen to your breathing  and sing along to the music if you can. Pay attention to what you are doing in the same moments you are doing it for periods of time and especially when you start to feel the symptoms I’ve described above.

Call a close friend on the phone, pet your dog or cat, write a letter by hand, feel your feet on the floor or grass, these all help to ground you, meaning to bring you into the moment. Hug a tree, lay down on the ground and make like an angel, snow or not! Connecting with the earth’s energy, or Mother nature if you prefer, is the point of it. You will feel more stable when you stabilize your energetic system by co-mingling it with as much stable energy as possible.

The suggestions I’ve made here may sound trite on face value, but they will keep you in the present, rather than on past memories or future worries, and they will help unreal and unwanted feelings and anxiety to fade away. When or if the feelings come up again, repeat what works to stabilize you. This may be necessary many times a day in the first few days.

If you feel a personal consult or evaluation is best for you, contact me by phone or email. If starting therapy was on your mind before the fires, it might be good to begin now.  If you’d like, set up a time for us to talk by phone to see if we’d be a good fit.

In January, my Group Meditation classes begin. For details, click the Meditate tab on this website.

Be kind to yourself, during stressful times especially.  Namaste.

2 Comments

  1. Great advice. I’ve been thinking of everyone touched by the fires. It’s good to know that you are safe and able to help others.

  2. Thank you for this Dr. Kim.

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