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Tips to Manage Anxiety from Wildfires

Dealing with the stress of the worst pandemic in a century has been challenging. Then the wildfires happened.

Colorado’s warm, dry climate entices visitors to Colorado, but it also provides the perfect weather for dangerous and devastating wildfires. Recent high temperatures and low humidity have spurred wildfires, sometimes referred to as forest fires or wildland fires, ravaging the western United States.

The confluence of historic heatwaves, rampant fires, and a pandemic and its impact is enough to make anyone feel overwhelmed. Understandably, people living in affected areas may struggle with anxiety.

If you or someone you know is struggling with wildfire anxiety, there are steps to help manage the stress.

Know the Warning Signs of Wildfire Anxiety

Recognizing the warning signs can help you be better prepared. And, when you’re prepared, you have a better chance of taking action before situations get out of control. 

Feelings such as overwhelming anxiety, constant worrying, trouble sleeping, and other depression-like symptoms are common responses before, during, and after wildfires. Other signs of emotional distress related to wildfires can include:

  • Thoughts, memories, or nightmares related to wildfires that you can’t seem to get out of your head
  • Constant worry
  • Unexplained feelings of guilt
  • Excessive absences from work or school

These are just a few warning signs of disaster-related distress. Learn more about warning signs and risk factors for emotional distress related to wildfires and other disasters.

Prepare to Live with Unpredictability

Wildfires bring about extreme unpredictability that requires a new mindset to cope—one that has us prepared for events as much as we can be. Practical and psychological preparation go hand in hand. Understanding the risks and what we can do to mitigate them is part of our ability to be prepared and cultivate a more relaxed mental stance. The more prepared we are, the less anxiety we will feel.

On the practical side of things, it requires taking steps ahead of time to prepare by getting the resources we need if and when disaster strikes. Packing an emergency kit and “go-bag” ready can be a great source of comfort. 

Wildfires can cause extreme psychological stress for some people. The unpredictability of fires alone makes them stressful. However, wildfires can also be a genuine threat to our lives, homes, and businesses. Regardless of how close the fires are, there is also a health threat from the smoke. Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick, but people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or heart disease, as well as children, pregnant women, and responders, are particularly at risk.

For people who have experienced a wildfire, evacuations can trigger post-traumatic stress reactions, which might include obsessively checking the sky and internet for information or reacting negatively every time you smell smoke or hear that there’s a fire nearby. Even just hearing the words fire and smoke can heighten anxiety.

People with low incomes or precarious housing may not have the protections needed to stay safe that are easy to take for granted—air conditioning, air filters, and homes that are easily sealed up. Evacuation issues can also cause additional stress for people who don’t have the means to find shelter.

Protect Your Mental Health

Many people are aware of the physical health problems caused by smoke, but being in the vicinity of a wildfire can also cause significant mental health issues. You can take actions to mitigate the anxiety wildfires may cause.

  • Take frequent breaks from watching the news. Natural disasters, such as wildfires, even if they are not near our home, may make us feel distressed or vulnerable. In addition, there’s a constant barrage of media coverage, which can fuel ongoing anxiety. As with COVID-19, it’s critical to limit your exposure and only to use reliable news sources.
  • Be kind to yourself and the emotions you may be experiencing, and set realistic expectations for yourself. During trying times, you need to give yourself a break. You’re trying your best, so focus on what you’re accomplishing, not what you haven’t been able to do.
  • Maintain social connections. Humans are social beings, so our natural tendency is to come together in times of hardship or celebration. The rallying cry of “we’re all in this together” becomes a reality when we share our feelings and successes. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Two heads are better than one.” So when disasters intrude in our lives, it’s helpful to problem-solve together.
  • Keep your perspective on life positive and focus on the good things around you. It’s easy to become overwhelmed when life is challenging. Instead, do things that bring you joy, whether it’s reading a book, listening to music, or talking with a friend.
  • Find productive ways to help in your community by making donations or volunteering your time. Reaching out to people in need is a wonderful way to feel connected. It also helps us have gratitude for the positive things we have.
  • Get a good night’s rest. It’s not unusual for people dealing with natural disasters or the threat of a disaster to report a disruptive sleep pattern. Not getting enough sleep can increase your stress level and make you irritable. Turn off the electronics and try to stick with a regular routine. 
  • Seek professional help. If elevated stress levels are keeping you from functioning, consider talking with a professional. Experiencing anxiety is a normal response to a natural disaster, such as a wildfire. It’s nothing to be ashamed of and shouldn’t be disregarded. You can find a local therapist through Vail Health’s Eagle Valley Behavioral Health. Financial assistance is available for people who are unable to afford treatment.

If you’re unsure whether you need professional help, there’s no harm in talking with a therapist. If you are concerned that someone you love may hurt themselves or attempt suicide, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.

Feeling anxious about wildfires is normal and important to discuss. However, remember that feelings are contagious, and hopelessness and pessimism can be incredibly catchy. So instead, try to focus on the positive things in life and help one another.

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