Forest Fires and Mental Health. How to deal with life’s disasters.

I'm currently living in an area impacted by a large wildfire. Although I used my personal impact for the topic, this was written for anyone who is living through stress and overwhelm regardless of the cause.


Every year fire season rolls around and we talk about it. We talk about how dry or not dry it is, how much snow we did or didn’t get. We talk about the trees, the heat, the lightening potentials. We try to predict where and when we’ll come around the corner and see the plume of smoke we know is not a cloud. We desperately hope it won’t be in our backyard. 

And then it happens. Somewhere, somehow a fire starts, we come around the corner and we see it, we can smell it, we hear the people on the street, the radio, and at work or play talking about it. 

We all stop and look, pointing while trying to determine how much space is between us and it, where’s it’s located, and is it affecting spaces I know. At first there is usually a lot of chatter, energy, maybe even excitement that parts of the forest may become more healthy, yet over time our endurance wanes and our hearts become heavier. 

We run out of “fuel” to stay positive about the impacts of such a natural event. At these times it is important to take care of ourselves because the effects do not go away easy.  Caring for our mental health is as important as caring for our physical health during forest fires (or any other disaster in our lives). 

Physical Health:

First, lets talk about physical health and mental health intersections. With an event like a fire we have a strong response in our bodies. We feel the primal nature of the event and register the lack of control. These add stress to the body and mind. Mind and body are not separate entities to be regulated to sections of your physical frame. In fact, if I want to know your serotonin levels (a marker for depression) I would take your blood or look at your gut health where the majority of it is made. 

If I want to know how stressed you are, I’ll take a saliva sample to check your cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that impacts inflammation. Inflammation impacts joint pain, brain efficiency, heart health, and obesity to name a few mental to physical health connections. 

Your breathing rate is tied to your heart rate, and both are tied into your nervous system. When breathing or heart rate run too fast or too slow, your brain registers danger. When you feel like you can’t breathe it’s a big deal. Breathing is necessary for survival and your brain’s ultimate goal is to keep you alive.  This lack of oxygen (or the perception of it) shifts the brain into a hyper-vigilant state because it needs to find the danger. This elevates your nervous system and impacts items like digestion, rest, inflammation rates, and positive social connections. 

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Sleep is a huge piece of physical and mental health. When we can’t sleep all sorts of things happen to the body and mind. The body goes through a number of important cycles during sleep. When we miss these cycles – guess what happens … the brain registers the lack of these important steps as a problem, it’s stressed because it’s running on lower than normal / needed systems. It’s like taking your car out but forgetting to top off the oil and then wondering why things don’t run smoothly. 

Here’s a concrete example of how the body and mind interplay on our health during an event like forest fire:

On a concrete level we have to deal with lots of smoke. This smoke makes it hard to breathe – stress response in the body – and may have a direct or indirect response getting enough sleep. So much smoke, gotta close my windows, now I can’t sleep because it’s hot or I’m so worried or sad for those effected. I can’t sleep because my mind is playing images over and over, or I’ve been evacuated and now I can’t sleep with all these people around me in the center. Soon our ability to mange regular daily stressors wanes and we have a harder and harder time being present to our life routines and relationships. Bottom line, because our physical systems are impacted – our mental health will be too. 

Here’s how to help make sure you are as physically strong as you can be during a stressful event. Get enough rest, good foods – these help make sure the body has what it needs to make the right neurotransmitters. Engage in healthy social contact. Being with people who help us feel safe and connected tells the brain that we are ok and the environment is ok, we have support. Move everyday. Moving gets things flowing through the system and allows your body to help you metabolize stress hormones and other emotion traces. It also helps you be grounded in the moment. This is important because all we have is this moment. Exercise helps us learn to be present to the current experience through physical sensations and teaches us that our behavior matters. Practice breathing with control. Do your best to slow down your breathing rate. When you slow the breath it slows the heart rate, when you slow the heart rate the brain registers that you are safe. This allows your body to help calm your mind. In as little as 3 deep breathes your body will begin to shift from stress responses to the relaxation response and re-set your nervous system, even when mind is trying hard to throw you off with all her chatter.

The Mind:

Second, let’s talk about mind. One of my favorite things is the mind. Mind is so creative and interesting. Sometimes mind drives us bonkers with it’s constant flow of ideas, thoughts, and review of our life. As noted above mind is influenced by the body and that means body is influenced by the mind. 

We are just chemical-electrical little beings. Every thought we have produces a chemical and electrical pattern we can map using fancy machines to look at live brains in action. When you have a negative thought it increase stress in the body by changing the balance of chemistry in your body. As your cortisol and adrenaline rise these influence and impact things like heart rate and inflammation levels. As noted above, these have physical health complications over time. 

In situations like a fire our mind runs rampant with worry and fear, which raise our stress hormone levels. We watch the news feed and look at the pictures. We talk to our neighbors and friends and strangers and repeat the same stories. All these actions create an electrical – chemical pattern in our brains. 

As humans we are very, very adaptable. We are made to adapt. When we follow a thought pattern over and over we create a neurological change to make it easier to access information “if we are repeating it we must need it”, says the brain. 

When something is continuing to happen repeatedly our brains figure we need it for survival, so it better adapt. It does this by changing it’s wiring. We call this neuroplasticity. Great when we learn to drive a car, not so great when we adapt toward more fear and worry. During an event like a forest fire, it is hard not to feed the fear, worry, grief, anger, and sadness. 

To maintain health we must work with our minds and shift our focus from what is not working to what is. Look for positive things in your life, even small things make big gains. Find a flower, the way the aspen leaves move, the fact that the smoke gets easier during the day, that you like the meal you are eating, or the book you are reading. It doesn’t matter what you shift to, as long as it’s something you like, even for a moment. Those small shifts break the cycle of negative thinking patterns.

We must take responsibility for the thoughts we think and the direction we allow our focus to take. If we let mind run rampant, it will. Those repetitive thoughts feed themselves, creating more negative thinking. Remember, if we feed it fear and worry, we’ll have more fear and worry. Due to adaptation, we’ll focus on and find more negativity all around us. If we honor the fear and worry, then shift our focus to something more positive we are able to control the effects on our body for the better. 

Now, some of you may be thinking, “you just don’t understand, I can’t turn my mind off” or “this is so horrible it won’t get better, this is a very bad thing” or some other version of the negative story. Switching your focus to something positive, does not mean you are ignoring the negative. It just means you are in control of your thought focus and you are managing what you pay attention to, thus what you experience in the moment. 

Happy people do not experience less negative things, they control their focus and perception. They find the positive or neutral pieces of those experiences better than less happy people. They also do a better job of accepting what is in the moment which gives them more control over their experiences and options for changing it. Happier people know they always have choices (hint: we all do) and they know how to manipulate their choices for the best outcome in the moment. 

Acceptance doesn’t mean you like the experiences, want it, or agree with it. It just means you acknowledge what is happening in this moment – not the one you want, not the one you wish you were in, not the one that would be easier. From the place of acceptance, it is easier to see what small step you can take in the direction of positive experience right now. A string of positive experiences creates a different neurological footprint and focus point. From here you have more control of your focus and thus the perception of the event. 

Life happens to us all the time. I can’t control most of it. What I can control is how I perceive it. This makes all the difference in the world when in comes to living under negativity or positive experiences. Acceptance isn’t just about the mind, it’s also about accepting your emotional state. 

 

Emotions:

Onto the third element of mental health, emotions. Emotions are a method of intelligence. Although many do not like feeling emotions or are confused by them, they are important pieces to understanding our experiences. Emotions help us know what we need to do with the experience we are having. During a fire we can feel lots of different emotions from fear, anger, sadness to guilt, despair, and even shame to excitement and happiness. 

When we first hear the news, we often feel fear right off the bat. Where is the fire, who is effected, where will it spread, how will it move, will I be effected? The unknown is scary. It’s hard to feel safe when we aren’t sure of what’s going to happen. This creates fear.

Fear doesn’t live well when we take control of the moment by being present to what we can control and practicing acceptance. Fear is helped by asking for help and support when needed, too. Seek out information that helps you feel supported and safe.

Many feel anger. Anger is a normal emotion when we feel something is unjust or that someone / something we care about has been hurt somehow. Anger is a healthy response that helps us do something with our emotional energy by making changes. This shift helps us feel empowered and more in control of our world, which decreases our level of fear and changes our perception of experience. 

For those of us taught to ignore our anger or those who fear their behavior when angry, it can be hard to honor and express it. It is important to express your emotions in healthy ways to help process and move beyond them. If you are feeling angry it can be helpful to get engaged with an organization we believe in making change in the area of concern, or talking with a trusted friend about your feelings and options for making change. 

It is not helpful to repetitively vent, blame others, use violent language or physicality, or ignore your anger completely. It can also be helpful to do the exact opposite of your anger impulse. Anger wants you to yell, honor it and talk softly, anger wants you to hide, find a friend to talk with, anger wants to stew on the topic, do something completely different, go volunteer to distract yourself. 

Sadness is often a large component of forest fires. As humans we are biological creatures and connected to nature thus we feel loss at the loss of natural life. It is sad and sadness is all about loss. For some of us we have lost our routines, sleeping in our own beds, or habitats we love. For some we’ve lost freedom of being outside and being comfortable. There are lots of things we’ve lost as the fires continue. 

Honor the sadness as it shows us what’s important and helps us create a life worth living around things that matter to us. If you feel your sadness, you know what you care about losing. Then you can make sure to build life experiences that allow you to engage with items most important to you, while honoring change. 

Guilt may arise as we find ourselves in conversation with others who are having a harder experience or we may be feeling a different emotion than others. Shame could also arise. Simply put, shame is about feeling like “I’m a bad person” where guilt is more about “I’ve done something bad”. It can be difficult to pick apart these emotions and deal with them. We often want to push them away and hide from them, however as with all emotions it’s more important to acknowledge them and make your choice to act on them from a place of authenticity. Both want you to hide and neither survive well when you are in connection with an empathic and supportive friend. Tell someone you trust what you are feeling to help mitigate these two. 

Despair can also arise, especially because this is a repetitive cycle. We hope and pray for snow and water, yet experience drought, we have a good year or two, followed by some bad years. Maybe we are engaged in the conversations about human impact on the climate.  All of these create situations where we feel helpless and small, we feel struggle not ease, and we feel as though the problems are so big we cannot solve them. As with anger, it is important to work toward small changes you can feel competent making in your own life. As one person we work in our individual environments to make change, then connect with others making small changes to make a larger impact on the world. Despair results when our sense of helplessness becomes so great that we see no way out. The way out is making small changes we feel good about it. 

Happiness, excitement, or joy could also be part of our experience. For many we understand the transformative power of fire and may feel an excitement at the change fire brings. For some we feel excitement or joy knowing fire is natural part of nature and part of healthy forest development. For some we recognize fire is about creating a new beginning and we enjoy seeing the resiliency of the forest as it returns, reminding us all that we, too are resilient beings. 

The bottom line on emotions is: whatever you are feeling know it’s normal and it is ok. As humans we can feel a lot of emotions all at once and that is ok. When we work to honor our current experience through emotions, we use them to form actions in healthy outlets. As a result our life becomes more vibrant and rich. 

Final Thoughts On Dealing with Difficult Life Events:

If you feel overwhelmed by your experiences seek extra help from a professional. Therapy is great, when else can you sit with someone trained to actively listen to you talk about you for an hour with no bias in your situation. We need other humans to build our brains and make sense of our experiences. Seek out help if you need it. 

Finally, perception is everything. Life happens, and it happens to all of us. We have little control in what is going on around us, however we have much control in how we respond to it. The way you manage your physical environment and body, pay attention to your thoughts and focus, and allow yourself to gather information from your emotions and make informed healthy action choices as a result, keep us regulated. This regulation is important as we continue to be stressed by disruptions and as we continue to move through this year’s fire season and beyond. 

Make sure to take care of you. 

If you enjoyed this article try one of these:

What to do with my emotions  Or  Making sense of physical emotions

#416Fire   #fitnesspsychologist

One thought on “Forest Fires and Mental Health. How to deal with life’s disasters.”

  1. Great article! It’s so important to acknowledge, accept, and honor our experiences in life, especially when going through something that lasts for an extended period, like a fire. Dr. Stacy’s suggestions show us how we can respond in ways that empower us to make positive changes instead of succumbing to hopelessness and despair.

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