Recognizing and Resolving Trauma and Anxiety During Wildfire Season



As another wildfire season takes hold, it is important for people to understand that disasters like wildfires affect individuals in many ways and may affect a person's emotional, spiritual, physical and mental well-being. Dr. Nel Wieman, Senior Medical Officer, Health and Wellness for the First Nations Health Authority says the emotional effects of coping with these kind of situations may show up immediately or appear weeks or even months later.

"The prospect of having to flee your home can trigger distress related to loss of connection to land, home, animals, and traditional foods and medicines," says Dr. Wieman. "For some First Nations people it can also trigger trauma associated with memories of being forcibly removed from home and sent to residential school, Indian hospitals or foster homes."

Dr. Wieman says it's natural to feel stress in these circumstances and it's helpful to know that there is a natural grieving process following a disaster of any size. Even worrying about the possibility of being affected by a disaster such as a wildfire can cause high levels of stress – as can the prospect of living with smoky skies.

Recognizing the Signs of Trauma

Anxiety and trauma related to disasters affect people in different ways. Physical and emotional signs may include:

• Overwhelming feelings of fear, stress and emotional distress – a feeling of being unable to cope

• Acute anxiety, excessive worry and panic attacks

• Feeling down or depressed, angry, sad, confused, low mood

• Trouble breathing

• Trouble eating (including overeating or not eating enough)

• Trouble sleeping (including nightmares, oversleeping or not sleeping enough)

• Irritability and agitation, feeling jumpy, tense or hyper-vigilant

• Avoidance or withdrawal – feeling or being unable to meet the demands of what needs to be done; e.g., preparing for evacuation

Tips for Coping with Disaster-Related Stress

Below are four tips to help you stay mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually well during wildfire season:

1. Prepare yourself, your family and loved ones: having a clear emergency or safety plan and kit ready for your family and pets can ease your mind and allow you to focus on other needs. Even if your community has an emergency plan, it is still important to make a plan that addresses the specific needs of your family and household. (Visit PreparedBC for information on preparing a family emergency plan).

2. Take care of the basics: stress takes a toll on our physical and mental health. Try to eat well and get enough sleep. Be kind to yourself. Give and accept support. Follow your daily routine if possible. Take a break from disaster news coverage and from thinking and talking about disaster events.

3. Help others: check in on Elders and children. Coping may be more difficult for Elders living alone; for people who have mental health and wellness concerns; or for those with few social supports. Reaching out to connect with them can be a big help and can help you manage your own anxiety. 

4. Ask for help: whether it's with family, friends, an Elder, cultural supports, doctor, nurse or counsellor — talking helps. Crisis lines are available to listen and help any time — not just during a crisis*. Those with moderate to severe symptoms that last more than two to four weeks should consult a family physician, if available. Otherwise, reach out to your nearest Mental Health and Substance Use Centre or community nurse.

Where to Find Help

More support resources can be found at:

Visit PreparedBC for resources to help you understand the hazards in your location and to create a family emergency plan.

Visit BC Centre for Disease Control for information on wildfire smoke and steps you can take to protect your health, both indoors and outdoors.

*If you are struggling right now, confidential, culturally-safe support is available 24/7 through the KUU-US Indigenous Crisis Line at 1-800-558-8717.