Well-Being//

The California Fires, PTSD and You

When we are affected by something like the devastating fires in California, it's normal to find the trauma overwhelming and even experience symptoms of PTSD.

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images
Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

When people are affected by something like the devastating wildfires in California last month, they may find the emotional and physical trauma overwhelming and could experience PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The National Institute of Mental Healthdefines PTSD as “a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.”

PTSD symptoms may include:

  • Feeling jumpy, unable to sleep, easily irritated or angered
  • A feeling of emotional distance or numbness, avoidance of people or places related to the trauma
  • Flashbacks, nightmares and distressing memories

These symptoms may not occur immediately, and can even crop up years later. For some, PTSD is a permanent part of their lives, coming and going at its own whim.

If you think you are experiencing PTSD, the Anxiety and Depression Association offers a  screening test as well as resources for professional assistance. Exploring options through therapy or stress reduction techniques like mindfulness and exercise like yoga may be helpful as well.

Empathic Distress
Some may think that PTSD only applies to the victim of a traumatic event, but witnessing that event can also trigger symptoms, especially for those with high empathy, first responders or caregivers.

Those who were not directly impacted by the fires can experience what is called “empathic distress”. Media coverage was intense, making it almost impossible for us to ignore around the world.  

The smoke from the fires drifted hundreds of miles away. In the San Francisco Bay the air quality dropped to levels I’d never experienced before. It was impossible not to look around and imagine how easily our own golden (and tinder dry) hills could be engulfed in flames. Friends told me while they were hiking in the Santa Cruz foothills they were obsessively planning escape routes "just in case".

Common risk factors for PTSD include:

  • Witnessing a dangerous or traumatic event
  • Seeing someone hurt, killed or traumatized
  • Hearing the story of a traumatic event (including through the media)
  • Feeling a sense of helplessness, fear or horror
  • Caring for someone with an acute or terminal illness
  • Caring for someone who has been through a traumatic event perhaps absorbing their trauma

Survivor guilt
PTSD can also be a factor for those who were living in the fire zone, and yet their homes were left untouched. We’ve heard stories from people who returned to an area of devastation to find that their own home undamaged. One might think they would be jubilant about their good fortune, but many said they felt horrible for those who lost so much, and guilty that they still had their home and loved ones for comfort.

Flashbacks from previous events
I spoke with my friend Lynn Abate-Johnson, whose home was left largely undamaged in the Sonoma County fire last year while her neighbors lost so much. She told me that survivor guilt still creeps into her consciousness from time to time.

When the smoke from the Camp fire in Paradise flooded into the Sonoma Valley, this is how she felt: “It was like “Armageddon" all over again. I woke up during the nights when the winds started raging again, wondering if this was the night that our evacuation would happen all over again, bracing myself for the “fight and flight”. She said. “Adrenaline was at all-time highs, as well as my cortisol levels.

Lynn and her family have moved away from the area for the Winter. She has found ways to deal with what Gov. Gerry Brown calls “The New Abnormal” of living in California.

Some of the  things Lynn found helpful:

  • Being of service to others
  • Giving away “stuff” she no longer needs
  • Taking supplies to the fire evacuation center to help those in need
  • Being with family and friends, having heart-to-heart dialogues about their experiences
  • Admitting that we are living in fear much of the time

Taking a mindful approach

Trauma can cause changes in the way our brains work. Mindfulness training can slow down our reactivity and help us regulate emotions and gain a little distance from our thoughts, allowing us to observe them more clearly. Mindfulness is simply defined by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, as “Paying attention in a particular way, in the present moment, on purpose, non-judgmentally”.

Mindfulness-based programs like MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) are thought to be useful in targeting the core features of PTSD using self-awareness and self-compassion practice.

Accepting the situation as it is, without judgment or self-blaming can ease the suffering and allow us to observe our own feelings and accept them rather than avoiding them. When we can calmly observe how we are responding to the trauma without self-judgment or avoiding the memory of the experience, we can mediate the effects of the trauma. Eventually, this can reduce our need to ruminate and re-live the experience over and over, reducing depression and post-traumatic symptoms.

There have been studies on the association between mindfulness practices like meditation that demonstrate activation the prefrontal cortex (The area of our brain that handles logic and planning) can reduce the activity of the Amygdala (the area of the brain that causes reactivity and the fight or flight response).

Mindfulness training can help activate the prefrontal cortex, interrupting the nagging Amygdala's reactivity and allowing the mind to settle. This can effectively modulate emotional reactivity and a path to recovery for those suffering from trauma.

Has mindfulness practice helped you deal with a traumatic experience? I'd love to hear about it!

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