Anxiety About The Fires
Anxiety About The Fires
Dear Tacit,

I am really struggling with my anxiety about the fires. The worries keep popping into my head and my stress levels are constantly high. How can I cope with this differently?

Signed: Anxiety About The Fires

Dear Anxiety About The Fires,

You are definitely not alone in your anxiety about the fires.  Natural disasters evoke a unique type of worry in most of us.  From floods, to fires, to crazy wind-storms and record-breaking snowfalls, Mother Nature likes to remind us that she is the one who has the most control over this planet – not us!  And the human psyche does not like to feel helpless, vulnerable and out of control.

I suspect we are going to be dealing with a lot of fires across our province this summer.  CTV News (March 2023) and the Farmer’s Almanac have predicted that the next 4 months in Alberta will be fraught with high temps and dry days mixed with stormy bursts.  The lightning poses a worry just as much as the dryness does, and the fires will likely surface again, in many communities.  But there are some strategies that can help when you feel your anxiety being triggered.

Create your own sense of safety.  Develop a plan that will help you feel prepared for your “worst case scenario”.  Make a list of the items you will take with you if you need to evacuate.  Talk to your family about the process you will use if you must leave your home.  There is a reason that schools have fire drill practices so often and the Fire Department encourages mock emergency planning in family homes.  The more we think through what we would do in an emergency, the more habitualized our brain gets to the actions we should be taking if the crisis happens.  And the calmer we feel, knowing that we are prepared.

By the way, there are a ton of free resources you can access to help you with your planning.  You can find these on various government websites, and even on your own community Fire Services social media pages and websites (for example, the Beaumont Fire Services links are awesome!).

Reach out to friends or family in other locations.  Figure out where you might go, if you have to leave your home.  And arrange for ways to stay in touch with those who care about you, so they know you are safe without needing to bother you in the middle of your emergency plan of action.  Other people’s frantic worry can easily rub off on you, if you end up talking to stressed out people when you are trying to remain calm.  And the constant interruptions will likely make you feel scattered as you are trying to implement the safety plan you have developed.

Allow the worry its 15 min of fame.  Set aside a bit of time each day to lean into the feeling of stress and anxiety that your brain is having.  Don’t try to avoid it (it just builds up) and don’t try to deny it (you cannot lie to your own brain).  Instead, embrace it.  Set a timer and indulge in every terrible thought or worry that passes through your mind.  Explore the “what-if’s”.  You will have solutions for most of them, which will likely help you feel better.  But even if you don’t have all the answers, you can process and release the apprehension that you have been carrying with you, and find relief from it.  It might build back up again the next day – this is why we need to allow ourselves time each day to connect to and to manage these feelings.  By dealing with them in small amounts regularly, we prevent a full blown crisis from taking over.  And we also teach ourselves that we CAN handle the ongoing stress quite successfully (anchoring our trust and confidence in our own self even more).

And when the 15 minutes are finished, switch the channel in your mind.  Get your brain to focus on something that is in your control.  Our thoughts create the emotional responses that we experience.  So if you can redirect your cognitive attention to something that is positive, hopeful and empowering (that which is in your control), your feelings of confidence and safety will rise to the surface.

This is also a perfect time to learn or to practice your self-soothing techniques.  Build into your day a routine of regular mindfulness or grounding activities, and de-escalate the stress about the future by refocusing on your present moment.  On an hourly basis, take just a few minutes to centre yourself on the reality of your immediate situation.  In those moments, you are safe – you are in control – you are handling things beautifully!  The more you practice your reset ability, the more it will neutralize the build-up of your anxiety feelings, so they do not ever grow into a crisis state (panic attacks, etc).  And this pattern of calming will become an automatic response for your brain, if you make it a habit.  It will kick in even when you are not intentionally thinking about it.

Remember that you are not alone.  We are all going through this together.  And you have survived a natural disaster at least once before (with COVID).  This fire season might be a new challenge.  But you CAN and you WILL handle it.  It may not be something you want to have to deal with, and I am sure that you are certainly not looking forward to any crisis that might happen.  But you are more than capable of getting through it if it does.  You have the skills and the ability to do so.  Remind yourself of this truth!

Take care!

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