Over the past week, the smoky air and the vivid media coverage from the fires in Butte County and southern California have been stressful for all of us.
Smells and images that are reminiscent of last year’s trauma can be “triggers” that can cause a setback in recovery. Since our bodies might instinctively associate the current smoke with last year’s life-threatening danger, we might find ourselves experiencing physical or mental symptoms such as increased anxiety or depression, episodes of panic, trouble focusing, difficulty sleeping, irritability, stomachaches, headaches, etc.
This can be particularly frightening for children, who might experience symptoms without thinking about or understanding the cause. Parents and other supportive adults can help a great deal by talking about “triggers” openly with children. You can normalize their symptoms by describing how our “animal” or instinctive brain picks up danger signs and lapses into “fight or flight” mode even if we are not in imminent danger. You can teach children to identify their physical and mental reactions, and to override their “animal brain” by using calming self-statements and relaxation techniques. And, of course, you can do your best to limit their exposure to media images which, especially for children, can bring them right back into trauma mode.
While it’s best to avoid false assurances like “this will never happen again here,” you can reassure your children with factual information about our current local conditions: The humidity is high, the winds are low, rain is coming soon, and the likelihood of a fire locally is therefore currently low. Our local infrastructure learned a lot from last year’s fires, and many improvements (to communication, fire detection, etc.) have been made to keep us safe. You can also talk to children calmly and logically about your family’s safety plan in case there is another disaster. Extra hugs and loving attention also go a long way! And make sure that both you and your children are taking good care of yourselves by eating well, exercising, and getting enough sleep.
Our local mysonomastrong.com website offers many helpful strategies for fire survivors, including excellent ideas for relaxation techniques. For example, speaking with a calming voice, you can guide your child to take slow, deep breaths. You can talk them through tensing then relaxing each part of their body—encourage them to feel the stress flowing out of their fingers and toes. You can guide them through a mini visualized “vacation” to the beach, or mountains, or anywhere they find especially relaxing — they can close their eyes as you describe the comfortable sand, a light breeze, how the warm sun feels on their body, palm trees swaying, birds sailing past, etc.You can teach them to imagine their favorite relaxing scene any time they feel stress or anxiety creeping in. You can do all this for yourself too!
Most of all, it’s important to encourage your children to process their thoughts and feelings. Research strongly indicates that recovery from trauma improves significantly simply by talking about what happened in a supportive setting. Adults and children alike recover faster and experience fewer long-term consequences when they are able to talk freely with good listeners. Good listeners are people who patiently allow you to talk freely, validate your feelings and experiences, and don’t interrupt, negate, or try to minimize what you are saying. Seek out good listeners for yourself, and do your best to be a good listener for your children.
Where to Find Support
Parents can be triggered too, and you might be experiencing symptoms of stress. If you or your children’s symptoms are debilitating, persistent, or have you concerned, seek medical or mental health advice. If you’d like information about counseling or other fire recovery related services, you can call the NAMI referral line at: (866) 960-6264. You can also go to the Redwood Empire MFT website for a list of therapists who are offering 3-5 free sessions: http://recamft.org/freecounseling.
Thanks to the support from Redwood Credit Union, CPI continues to offer Parenting Through Recovery from North Bay Fires. The group provides a supportive forum for parents who have lost their homes to process their own experiences and to share insights about guiding their children as they recover from the fires.
Upcoming meetings of these groups will be on select Fridays at 9:00 AM at CPI: