Disaster Mental Health – West Valley Counseling Center

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23 Oct

Disaster Mental Health

Recently, I had some experience with the effects of disaster during the Sonoma and Napa wildfires.  I wasn’t in Northern California at the time but family members, including my husband, were. Not only did I witness their reactions to the events, but I felt secondary distress before and after.

This is what I know:


When we are stressed our bodies react by releasing hormones and other chemicals that push us into fight or flight so that we have the energy to get away, or stand and fight the danger. Some people react differently; they might freeze, literally unable to move, or they might feel absolute calm during disaster – which doesn’t mean they won’t later feel the effects.

When the danger passed, people complained of feeling weak, sore or “beat up”, exhausted by the experience. They said they felt tired, needing more sleep than usual; others said they were  waking up hour after hour, tormented by anxiety or by flashbacks. Most of the people I know said they were “scattered” or unable to think straight. Many people shifted into high gear after the fires, remaining in a state of fight or flight for days. One relative who has Obsessive Compulsive Disorder noticed that her symptoms were more and more bothersome daily. Another friend who suffers from anxiety only got worse during and after the disaster, others with chronic illness such as depression found that their warning signs were much worse. The one who was completely calm began to have difficulty sleeping about ten days after the fires started. The experience intensified everything for everyone.

Meanwhile, at home in Los Angeles, I started losing things like keys, phone, appointment book, things I found after a frantic search, right where I had left them. I started over-worrying at the thought that I might be late, and couldn’t sleep more than four hours a night. And I wasn’t even there during the disaster.

Each of us react to disaster in different ways, and each of us recover from disaster in different ways. Recovering from disaster (or any other major stressor) does not happen overnight. People need caring and support, time, and encouragement to find their way but in most cases the body and brain need to be reminded to relax and heal. Deep breathing, picturing a calming place, playing with a pet may, listening to favorite music or guided relaxation meditation may help;  for some people prayer is calming, for others specific relaxation exercises may help (there are apps and information available online). Pick what works for you! Take good care of yourself!

Physical activity such as a brisk walk or other exercise activates deeper breathing and relieves muscle tension. Exercise helps the brain to move forward, no matter how you choose to do it. Activities such as coloring or other art projects, keep the mind moving forward, and support calm.  These types of activities can also provide distraction; a needed break from stress. Eat good, nutritious food, drink plenty of water, and try to spend time every day relaxing.

Finally, support from others can be a big part of recovering from disaster. Sometimes it helps to tell the story of what happened, sometimes it is too soon or too painful. Everyone is different!  Sometimes family and friends help the healing, and other times it may be important to find a mental health professional to support friends, family or yourself move through the process of recovery. Accept the help that is offered, it is meant with love and kindness!

If you’d like to make a tax-deductible donation of any amount to support WVCC, please go to our website at westvalleycounseling.org, or you can mail a check directly to West Valley Counseling Center at 19634 Ventura Blvd Suite 212, Tarzana, CA 91356. The tax ID number is 27-2188918.