Traumatic summer has created a stressful atmosphere
By Ann McCreary
Are you feeling irritable, anxious, impatient, unfocused, distracted? Do you jump when you hear a helicopter? Does a gust of wind make you uneasy?
If so, consider yourself perfectly normal.
After a month of living with wildfires, evacuations, power outages, communication failures, bizarre storms and smoke, Methow Valley residents are a collective wreck.
Not everyone is affected to the same degree by the stress of living in a disaster area, but everyone is affected, say mental health professionals.
“There’s a range of intensity. We all know someone who has lost their home. Even if we haven’t personally had a very intense trauma, we know someone who has. And that brings it very close to home,” said Lisa Spitzmiller, a licensed mental health counselor in Winthrop.
“I’ve heard people say, ‘I don’t know why I’m having these reactions. I wasn’t even evacuated.’ We need to recognize that we’ve all been affected at some level,” Spitzmiller said.
Since July 14, when lightning touched off wildfires that grew into a devastating conflagration, life for valley residents has been anything but normal. From extended power outages and disrupted communications, to watching homes — more than 300 of them — burn in the raging fires, nobody has escaped unscathed this summer.
“It’s been stressful for everybody. The uncertainty. The feeling of not knowing what’s safe, where is safe? We’re on edge,” said Becky Studen, whose home off Upper Beaver Creek Road was destroyed by wildfire on July 18.
Studen and her children evacuated their home the previous day, and with a friend she watched from Balky Hill as the fire swept toward her house that afternoon.
“I watched planes drop retardant in the vicinity of the house. … We looked up toward Pipestone Canyon. There was a roiling fire coming up the draw. The flames were sideways, it was moving forward with such force. It was a fire-nado, a giant glowing blob of smoke,” Studen said.
She was able to drive through the charred landscape the next day. She hadn’t been able to see her house as she watched the fires from Balky Hill. “There was a glimmer of hope. The house was completely gone.”
Signs of stress
A yoga instructor, Studen recognized signs of stress in herself in the days after the fire. “My heart hurt and my breathing was shallow,” she said.
“Life is full of uncertainty. I kept having to come back to that idea, and do my best to let myself feel what I was feeling, but knowing I must not get hugely stressed out and make myself sick,” Studen said.
“I’m trying to focus on the things that are okay, the little things to be grateful for in this time of loss,” Student said. “The community, the hugs.”
A former Forest Service biologist, Studen said she finds comfort in comparing the recent events in her life to the life cycle of lodgepole pine trees, whose cones burst open during fires and release seeds for new trees.
“Serotinous cones open with fire and are nourished by the soil that’s been burned. I reminded myself of that,” she said. “Even though fire burned things it’s cleansing. It’s a new beginning. It felt way more positive than dwelling on the negatives.”
Focusing on the present and breathing deeply can help people deal with the anxiety produced by the uncertainty and disruption of recent weeks, said Sharon Cohen, who teaches stress reduction classes in the Methow Valley.
“Fear is always about the future. By turning your attention to the present moment it’s a way of letting go of the stress,” Cohen said.
“Taking a few moments to sit down and bring awareness to how your feet touch the floor, how your body is interacting with the furniture, and bring attention to the present moment, then you can focus more clearly. Everyone can take a deep breath, but it’s hard to remember to do it,” Cohen said.
Stress is a normal response to danger, but can be damaging if it continues over long periods, Cohen said.
“Stress evolved to be a short term, defensive, effective response to life-threatening danger,” she said. In this fight-or-flight response, heart and respiration rates accelerate, muscle tension increases, the liver produces glucose for energy, the body releases adrenaline and other hormones, digestion is inhibited.
“At a certain level of stress we perform better, but we don’t want to live there,” Cohen said.
“The focus on breathing deeply is the way to communicate with the primitive part of the brain that is directing the stress response.”
It’s helpful to recognize the things that trigger that physiological response, Cohen said.
“We find smoke stressful. You see wind and our body thinks ‘danger.’ You hear sirens and wonder if someone’s house is burning. The sound of helicopters is stressful. The lack of normalcy from having power out numerous times, the Internet out, the difficulty of maintaining daily life” all trigger stress, Cohen said.
Spitzmiller said that in that activated state of stress response “it’s normal for emotion and thought regulation to become more challenging.”
People experience mood swings, feeling more irritable and less patient, having trouble concentrating and feeling “scattered,” she said.
“So when you’re in a stress response, you’re not going to have a calm demeanor to problem-solve with a 5-year-old.”
It’s helpful to recognize “that emotional and physical exhaustion is normal because your brain is on overload,” she said.
Spitzmiller provides counseling for adults and children, and advises parents to “be extra kind to yourself and your children, try to stay on a schedule. With children, try not to have high expectations.”
The stress of living in a threatening and unstable world, experiencing evacuations or loss of a home, can be especially traumatic for children, Spitzmiller said.
“Children’s responses are even more intensified [than adults] because their sense of security is very much based on their parents’ sense of security, and as parents are stressed they react to that,” Spitzmiller said.
“Children’s security is tied to their surroundings. When they see danger, they may respond more strongly than an adult … especially kids who’ve have to relocate. Their sense of home creates a sense of stability and safety,” she said.
Children may be more irritable, moody or clingy; they may experience sleep problems or stomachaches. “They may start having regressed behavior such as bedwetting,” Spitzmiller said.
The experience of the past month may have lingering effects, even after the danger is past, she said.
“I predict we’re going to have a lot of kids not doing well in school because they’re having trouble with short-term memory, difficulty with concentration, preoccupation with safety,” Spitzmiller said.
Parents can do their best to create routines for their children and limit their exposure to disturbing information, Spitzmiller said. “Try to provide a sense of normalcy, safety, resiliency. Remind them that everyone in this fire, remarkably, has been safe. Remind them of the rebuilding process.”
Adults face the challenge of trying to cope with the normal demands of work and families, with the additional complications created by the wildfire disaster.
“Many business owners are facing a huge financial crisis. There are all these levels, or ripple effects, affecting our community,” Spitzmiller said.
Interrupted communications during power outages and ongoing communication problems add to stress, she noted. “I can’t tell you how many people I’ve heard from who have been stressed and frustrated and angered by the process of dealing with AT&T [about disrupted cell phone service].”
The stress of the current environment “is exacerbating already existing challenges” in people’s lives, such as difficult relationships or anxiety management, she said.
Spitzmiller said she has seen an increase in the number of people contacting her for help. “It’s pretty unusual to get three new clients in a week,” she said.
Spitzmiller advises people to “cut themselves some slack, ask for help, and surround themselves by supportive friends and family. Recognize that this is a time of heightened emotional response. Ask themselves, ‘When I’m irritable, what’s really happening? Am I over-reacting?’”
Simply recognizing the source of strong emotions can be empowering, she said.
Spitzmiller also advises that people concentrate on using healthy coping mechanisms, such as exercise, meditation, hobbies, taking a break, and spending time with supportive people. Using drugs or alcohol can exacerbate depression or feelings of anxiety, she said.
Anthony Twig Wheeler, a trauma specialist who lives in Carlton, advises people to “allow themselves to feel as good as they feel,” and permit themselves “respite” from the feeling of danger and “trying to match everybody else’s stress response.”
“It’s hard to give yourself permission to find respite when you recognize there is still danger in the environment and other people are still going through stress. People start to signal danger to each other and … we go into a universal stress response,” Wheeler said.
Signaling “safety” on the other hand, “is good for you and good for other people when they come in contact with you,” Wheeler said.
Holding onto stress over a long period poses the risk of post-traumatic stress symptoms, such as depression, panic and anxiety, after the danger is gone, particularly among people who have had other traumatic events in their lives, Wheeler said.
He advises valley residents to “do those things that make them feel they have increased control over their situation.” He suggests activities with a clear beginning and end — washing dishes or raking around the house — and then allowing a period of relaxation afterwards. This allows the nervous system to come down from its heightened state.
He also advises people to socialize to escape stress, and to allow their eyes to move freely. The eye movement is a trick, he explained, to alleviate the stress response. When threatened, the body responds by focusing and fixing our vision. Playing games — anything like cards, tug-of-war or badminton — forces people allow their eyes to move freely, and moderates a chronic stress response.
In the wake of losing her home, Studen said it has helped her to “focus on what’s next … trying to find a sense of humor about it. I was needing to downsize.”
Denise Tompetrini, who operates Twisp River Inn, was philosophical about the decrease in business and the current Level 1 evacuation status issued for her neighborhood because of the threat from the Little Bridge Creek Fire.
“We’re only at Level 1. You can’t live on the ledge. You have to be ready to jump, but you don’t have to stand there and wait,” she said.