It’s been six weeks since the wildfires in Northern California. For those who lost their homes and all their possessions, they are dealing with the major task of how to go forward and rebuild their lives. For others who didn’t lose their home, there are feelings of enormous relief. We tell ourselves we are lucky. But physical signs are showing up in people suggesting continued distress that is frequently not being acknowledged. 

Disasters can come in many different forms – not just wildfires. It can be hurricanes, earthquakes or anything that is unexpected, sudden and overwhelming.  And sadly there seem to be many such things around the world. 

Immediate reactions to such disasters leave people feeling stunned, disoriented and unable to process all the distressing information.  It seems overwhelming and our feelings can be unpredictable and intense. 

As the weeks pass, how do we cope?

Those who didn’t suffer major losses, feel grateful that they can return home and get busy getting back to ‘normal’ – albeit a somewhat ‘new normal’.  

However, as I talk to people in our local community after the wildfires, I am hearing of people getting frequent headaches, or having emotional outbreaks,  or digestive issues, or other physical symptoms.  They say they are fine. But their body is telling them otherwise.

How do we cope following a disaster, even if we feel lucky?

We know that most people are resilient and over time, are able to bounce back. Resilience is a huge factor whether we are talking about coping after disasters or after illnesses or infection or any health threat.  We want to have resilience. So are there things we can do to support our resilience or improve our resilience after a disaster? Here are some things to consider.

Give yourself time to adjust

In some ways, six weeks after the fires seems a long time. It’s like we should be feeling fine by now. But adjustment does take time. Acknowledge that this has been a difficult time in your life. You may have experienced feelings that you have never had before, like fear for your life or complete overwhelm or numbness. 

There are many visual reminders of the wildfires as we drive around and talk to others. Thoughts and memories come into our heads.  We hear the sound of a siren and suddenly, there is this hypervigilant response. We get primed to be ready to get away. Or we smell the smoke from someone’s wood-burning fire and are taken back to the smell of the wildfires.  

These flashbacks and memories can cause the same physical responses in us that they caused during the actual fires. That fight or flight response that we needed during evacuation.  We don’t need that response now to deal with memories, but our body often still has the same reaction. Be aware of it and acknowledge it’s existence. 

It takes time.  Give yourself time. Be with it. And don’t ignore it. 

Grieve and mourn for your losses

Even if you had no losses of your home or possessions, you may well have experienced emotional losses – like the loss of safety. Your general feeling of safety in your home may no longer be there or may be altered. Our environment is now different. Places don’t look the same.   Grieve the things that are no more, even if they aren’t tangible things. Mourn for your losses. Life isn’t the same.  Be patient with yourself and the changes in your emotional state. 

If you are more teary and emotional, let that be. Cry. And think about it. Don’t just bury it. Don’t feel guilty because you are emotional yet think that is inappropriate because you are one of the lucky ones.  Acknowledge the many different losses.

And be patient with others too. 

Talk about your experiences

Find friends and family who you can talk to about what happened and how you felt. And how you still feel. Talk to others who have also been through the same situation. And talk to others who weren’t involved. And while telling the story can help, also try to talk about how it has changed you; how you think and behave differently now. 

If you don’t have friends and family to talk to, consider going to one of the local community post-disaster events or disaster centers where there are people you can talk to and who will listen and empathize. Social support is a key component to disaster recovery, as I wrote about in my previous blog post during the fires.  Hearing from others was incredibly helpful for me. 

And if you weren’t involved in the disaster – be open to listening to what others went through. Keep in touch with them. Even seemingly small connections can have a huge impact. Maybe someone isn’t resilient and needs to talk more.

Ask for support from loved ones 

With Thanksgiving coming up this week, you may well be surrounded by family. So it is a great time to ask for support from loved ones. Maybe you are organizing the family gathering and aren’t coping as you normally would.

Maybe you can’t do the same things you did before like make decisions for others or organize special things with your usual calmness. Explain to family and friends that maybe now you don’t feel the same person you normally are and could do with some extra love and support. 

When people ask what they can do -maybe getting a hug is just what you need. Or a shoulder to cry on. Think what you need emotionally, as well as what practical help you may need right at that moment. 

Engage in healthy behaviors

Look after yourself. Maybe you aren’t sleeping as well? Or you are drinking more alcohol to try and relax? Are you eating more convenience food as you don’t have the energy to cook?  Take a look at your lifestyle and see if something has changed or slipped a little.

Also, consider whether you feel stressed during meal times.  If we are feeling distressed when we eat, our body is still wired for our sympathetic nervous system. For good digestion and absorption of food, we want the parasympathetic nervous system – the calming one – to be activated, not the sympathetic nervous system. With the sympathetic/fight-or-flight nervous system, blood goes away from our stomach to our arms and legs, ready to fight and run. We don’t make digestive enzymes and stomach acid. Our body isn’t worried about digesting if we are thinking about fight and flight. 

So if we don’t relax and de-stress before eating, it can severely impact our digestion and absorption, leading to digestive issues like bloating, nutrient deficiencies, constipation, indigestion, pain etc. And all these can affect other parts of the body. 

Before you sit down for a meal, take some slow deep breaths and be grateful for your food. Consider listening to a guided meditation during or before eating, like those you can find on the app Buddhify.  Smell your food before you eat it. That deep inhalation and smell can stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system.  Talk about positive things as you eat. Don’t be distracted by television.  Don’t rush.  All these simple little things can calm our body so that it is ready for good digestion and the food we eat will nourish us. 

Establish and re-establish routines

Get back to your good routines like having an epsom salts bath then going to bed at a regular time each night. Finding time for yourself. Maybe getting back into meditation.  Getting back to your exercise routines. 

And then doing the little things that you used to enjoy. My husband and I went to our favorite dinner and a movie place last week. We were both overly excited to get back there! We had the same meal we always do. And it just felt good to be back.

Or what about something new? Maybe you’ve been meaning to take up something? A new hobby, craft? What about using the craft as a means of expressing some of what you have been through? Yes, it can be like art therapy.  Paint or make something as you are thinking about your feelings.

Conclusion

It’s still early days here, after the wildfire in the Wine Country. Maybe you are still reeling after another disaster in your life. Remember, adjusting does take time. Be kind to yourself.

And then when you are feeling strong, be kind to others too. Reach out to others.

Together, we can get through this.  

If your feelings of distress persist and you don’t feel able to cope, go and find some professional help. We all have different experiences and come from different places. Don’t be embarrassed and delay doing something. Get in touch with your healthcare provider or find a psychologist.  Or pick up the phone and call me.

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