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Coping with Trauma and Stress in the Face of Wildfires

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The threat of wildfires can make people feel anxious, stressed, and panicked. For those who have survived past wildfires, breathing smoke, seeing ash and hearing sirens can act as emotional triggers. It’s important to monitor your mental health and know:

  • The signs of stress in yourself and your loved ones.
  • How to relieve stress.
  • When and where to get help.

Be prepared.

Taking proactive measures to secure your safety during these times can also help relieve stress. If you haven’t already, we urge you to:

Stay informed.

Too much news can make you feel anxious. Sign up for alerts to stay informed about important developments.

What can I do to help manage my emotional distress?

  • 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. If those closest to you also have experienced or witnessed a wildfire, they may not be able to provide the support they typically offer. You may want to seek help from a counselor who can support you through these difficult times.
  • Take a news break. Even though it’s important to stay informed, over-exposure to the news can increase your stress. Try to limit the amount of news you take in.
  • Establish or reestablish routines. Eat meals at regular times and follow 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.
  • Keep things in perspective. Try to focus on the good things in your life.
  • Avoid making major life decisions. It’s not the best time to switch jobs, make large purchases, or make sudden changes in your relationships. These activities have their own stresses that can exacerbate your current circumstances.
  • Find a productive way to help if you can. Many organizations welcome volunteers to deliver aid to victims of natural disasters. Contributing in this way can help you gain a sense of “control” while helping others.
  • Be kind to yourself. Some feelings may be difficult for you to accept. Try to listen to what your emotions are telling you and realize that it’s okay to have those emotions.
  • Engage in healthy behaviors. Eat well-balanced meals, get some exercise and try to rest. If you experience ongoing difficulties with sleep, you may find some relief through relaxation techniques.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs. They can suppress your feelings rather than help you manage or lessen your distress. They also can intensify your emotional pain.

Need help right now? Know someone who does?

All residents can receive services regardless of immigration status. You are safe in Sonoma County.

  • Contact the National Disaster Distress Helpline (English and Spanish)
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
    • NAMI Sonoma County Support Line: 1 (866) 960-6264 (Monday-Friday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm PST)
    • For mental health resources, NAMI Hotline: 1 (800) 950-6264 (Monday-Friday, 10:00 am to 6:00 pm EST)
  • Mental Health Association of San Francisco: 1 (855) 845-7415, (California peer-run warm line, 24/7)
  • 24-hour Domestic Violence Hotline: 1 (808) 799-7233 or click Chat Now

Mental Health in Children During Wildfires

Children’s reactions to the wildfires and their aftermath are strongly influenced by how their parents, teachers, and other caregivers cope during and after the events. They often turn to these adults for information, comfort, and help. Below are common reactions parents may see in their children. These generally diminish with time, but knowing that these reactions are common can help you be prepared to help your child.

  • Feelings of anxiety, fear, and worry about safety of self and others (including pets):
    • Children may have increased fears and worries about separation from family members
    • Young children may become more clingy to parents, siblings, or teachers
  • Fears of wildfires spreading or new ones starting
  • Distress and anxiety with reminders of the wildfires (e.g., burning smell, sounds of sirens or helicopters, burnt landscape and buildings)
  • Changes in behavior:
    • Increased activity level
    • Decreased concentration and attention
    • Increased irritability
    • Withdrawal
    • Angry outbursts
    • Aggression
  • Increased physical complaints (e.g., headaches, stomachaches, aches and pains)
  • Prolonged focus on the wildfires (e.g., talking repeatedly about it – young children may “play” the event)
  • Changes in sleep and appetite
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, including interest in playing with friends
  • Changes in school performance
  • Regressive behaviors in young children (e.g., baby talk, bedwetting, tantrums)
  • Increased chance of high-risk behaviors in adolescents (e.g., drinking, substance abuse, self-injurious behaviors)
  • Be a role model. Changes in living conditions can be extremely stressful for children. They will take cues of how to handle situations from their parents. Model calm behaviors during chaotic times.
  • Encourage your children. Help children take care of themselves by encouraging them to get appropriate rest, exercise, and diet. Be sure there is a balance of quiet and physical activities.
  • Reassure children that you will keep them safe. This may need to be repeated many times during and after a wildfire. You should spend extra time with your children and stay connected. It doesn’t matter whether it’s playing games, reading together, or just cuddling. Be sure to tell children they are loved.
  • Maintain routines. Even in the midst of chaos and change, children feel more safe and secure with structure and routine. As much as possible, stick to everyday routines (including mealtimes, bedtime, etc.).
  • Maintain expectations. Stick with family rules, such as rules about good behavior and respect for others.
  • Limit media exposure. It is important for you to protect your child from overexposure to sights and images of the wildfires, including those in newspapers, on the internet, or on television.

More information on how to help your children and family during and after wildfires may be found at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network website, www.NCTSNet.org.