The trauma of wildfires and other natural disasters: Tips for coping with anxiety and talking to children about it

The largest wildfire in Colorado history is burning in northern Colorado now. A behavioral health trauma expert shares tips for coping with anxiety when fires and other disasters trigger understandable worries.
Oct. 16, 2020

By Erin Emery, Kati Blocker and Joelle Klein for UCHealth

Coping with the worst pandemic in more than 100 years was tough enough.

Then, Colorado’s fires exploded into the largest in state history, sending giant plumes of smoke over heavily populated communities along the Front Range while gobbling up homes and memories.

coping with anxiety is hard when it's caused by wildfires as seen in this photo of plumes of smoke over the foothills near Laporte, Colorado
Smoke plumes from nearby wildfires are seen from Laporte, Colorado. UCHealth offers advice on coping with anxiety from wildfires and other natural disasters. Photo: Joel Blocker Photography.

It’s an October like no other that we can remember.

We’ve heard people complain of brain blur and pandemic fatigue, but as we head into late fall and winter, it’s wise to take a moment to reflect on the trauma and anxiety we’ve been experiencing, and do our best to take healthy steps forward.

Here are some tips on how to cope with anxiety and manage your daily life with hope, optimism and courage during simultaneous natural disasters.

1. Sleep well and write down your worries

“One problem we hear a lot of is that nobody feels like they’re sleeping well,” says Dr. Steven Berkowitz, professor of psychiatry with the University of Colorado School of Medicine and Director of the CU START Center. “Chronically not sleeping well can make you more irritable, more tired, less energetic, and is something that people should really pay attention to and just not accept.’’

Berkowitz recommends setting time aside in the late afternoon to write down your worry list. If you can focus on your worries in the afternoon and compartmentalize them, chances are better that they won’t intrude on your sleep at night.

Joanna Stratton, Ph.D., a psychologist at the UCHealth A.F. Williams Family Medicine Clinic, suggests protecting your sleep from technology. It’s easy for us to lay in bed reading negative news stories or mindlessly scrolling through our social media feeds. But that habit before bed can interfere with your body and mind relaxing and falling asleep.

If you’re having a hard time and relaxation strategies are not working, try a sleep aid like melatonin or other sleep medication for a period of time, says Berkowitz. “No one should feel that they need to be brave and not use sleep aids at this point.”

2. Find things that bring you joy

Focus or finding things that make you feel proud joyful or connected. Whether it’s reading a book in the afternoon or watching videos of your children when they were babies, these activities can alter your mood and mindset.

“Focus on the times you feel nourished or uplifted, and experiment doing those activities to the extent that they are helpful,” says Sona Dimidjian, Ph.D., director of the Renee Crown Wellness Institute in Boulder and professor in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience at the University of Colorado.

Take breaks from work or activities that feel like work. Schedule time for fun, Dimidjian recommends, and keep fun sacred from the things that are not fun. You can also try a simple activity to boost happiness by highlighting Three Good Things each evening. Click here to learn how.

3. Give yourself credit

We’re all trying the best we can, but sometimes it feels like all we’re doing is worrying and not accomplishing anything.

“One of the mistakes that most of us make is we don’t realize what we’re doing [and accomplishing], and we minimize our activities,” says Berkowitz. “I think it’s important for people to take the time to realize all the things they’ve actually done and not set unrealistic expectations for themselves.” Everything we are accomplishing now takes more planning because our lives are not running as usual, and we need to acknowledge that we are doing more work than we usually do.

4. Pay attention to your feelings so you can make appropriate changes

Dr. C. Neill Epperson, professor and chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, says to pay attention to your negative feelings so you can figure out strategies to mitigate them.

“It’s hard when it’s this big mass of horribleness,” she says. “You can’t attack individual issues and create coping strategies if the distress is that nebulous.” Do you feel miserable because you’re not sleeping well? Is it a lack of privacy? Is it boredom? Once you realize the root of your negative feelings, you can take that information and problem solve.

“I think we try to move past the bad feeling. But it’s a good idea to stop and pay attention to and not try to distract yourself all of the time. Feeling bad is a message, it’s information you can use to help you find your way forward,” says Epperson.

5. Find ways to connect in an authentic way

Social support and connection are integral to our lives.

“One of the most important things we’re pushing people to do is to interact in authentic ways with friends and others. It’s good to share stresses and things that have worked in terms of being helpful and things to avoid. It’s good to problem-solve together,” says Berkowitz.

It’s helpful not just to think we’re in this together but also to hear from your close friends and family members that they’re going through similar stresses and issues as you, says Berkowitz.

“We’re social animals, and whenever we’re overwhelmed, or whenever we want to celebrate, we come together. The more of that that we can do, reasonably and safely, the better.” Is your husband driving you crazy? Are you battling your teenager or struggling to keep your elementary school child away from her friends? It’s helpful to hear that your friends’ husbands are equally as irritating.

6. When should you seek professional help?

While feeling stressed and anxious is common these days, if you’re not able to function, you may need to see a behavioral health expert. “The number one criterion that is on almost any mental health disorder is not being unable to function in one’s life as compared to previous functioning,” says Stratton.

Whether it’s maintaining a relationship, parenting a child, keeping a job, paying bills, sleeping, if you’re feeling impaired, it’s time to get help. Epperson adds that if you’re feeling consistently depressed and panicky, call your primary care doctor or get help from a mental health care provider. If you are having suicidal thinking, don’t wait. Tell someone and get help immediately.

And, if you’re not sure whether you need help or not sure if you’re in worse shape than others, there’s no harm in talking with someone and getting checked out. A mental health check-up can help ward off more serious problems in the future, Epperson says.

7. Talking to your children about natural disasters

While we all know the devastation that the pandemic and wildfires bring to communities and economies, it’s also important to understand how to prepare children for the added emotional stress these situations can cause.

Christina Gerteis, a licensed counselor with UCHealth Mountain Crest Behavioral Health Center in Fort Collins worked in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina devastated that area. When it comes to decisions about whether to talk to children about what’s happening, she is always in favor of having the conversation.

“I absolutely err on the side of talking about it if you live in an area where there is a risk,” she said. “If it’s something your kids are going to see or hear on the news, then it makes sense to talk about it. The more children feel prepared and can talk about these things, the less traumatic stress they might experience later because they are able to cope (with anxiety) more effectively and get support from others. However, if your risk is very low, I wouldn’t necessarily have these conversations on an ongoing basis.”

8. Start with yourself

Just as a flight attendant advises you to put on your own oxygen mask before assisting your child, the same is true in other crises, Gerteis said.

“You really need to take care of yourself first before you can support your kid, as they are learning how to cope with their anxiety by looking at those closest to them,” she said.

This also means not neglecting your mental or physical health.

“A lot of time, as adults, we do engage in avoidance behaviors, such as zoning out in our own ways with screens, technology, social media,” Gerteis said. “It’s good to take a step back from those things and find something like yoga, meditation or taking a walk — and take your kids with you. It will be good for the whole family.”

9. Let your child take the lead

Gerteis advises parents to let their children take the lead. Don’t let your own fear or anxiety drive these conversations. Your child might not be feeling fear or anxiety, so try to avoid projecting your feelings onto them.

“That’s why it is so important to talk with others in your community to keep your own fears in check,” she said. “Find out what is really going on to determine if your worries are accurate before you move on to discussing those feelings with your kids.”

In both adults and children, these normal crisis reactions tend to last about three to six weeks. If feelings of fear and anxiety continue longer, it may be a sign that the person is struggling and needs professional help.

“There are going to be typical, yet difficult, feelings, and that’s why talking and normalizing those feelings are so important,” she said. ‘But if those feelings are not subsiding within three to six weeks, it may be a good indicator that additional support may be helpful. What we know about PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and traumatic stress is that early intervention is important for keeping symptoms at bay that can often impact our work, school, family, and close relationships in negative ways if left unaddressed.”

10. Consider the child’s age; keep it accurate

“Younger kids are going to need different support than adolescents, who have stronger abilities with processing and thinking,” Gerteis said. “Age and development are important.”

Younger kids will need more time to rest or play during talks. They’ll need support and encouragement in verbalizing their feelings. And it’s important that the adult validates what they are saying and feeling.

Older children, on the other hand, are more cognitive in processing and exploring their feelings, and if they can do that, Gerteis said, that’s a good time to correct any misconceptions they may have.

“We assume that they are more aware of what is happening, but they also tend to have less background on which to base their feelings,” she said. “Discuss what they know and make sure you’re well informed to correct any distortions they may have about what is going on.”

Working collaboratively with other adults around your children — teachers, coaches, babysitters, neighbors — to make sure that everyone is sharing the same accurate information also is important.

11. Think about media exposure

Making sure you have a reliable news source for information on the crisis is important, Gerteis said. Use state websites and emergency service social media platforms to get up-to-date and accurate information.

“Television can have the opposite effect and raise anxiety,” she said. “Talk to your older kids about what they are reading online and watching on TV, and limit that exposure. When the anxiety and fear around what is happening starts to become an everyday conversation, it is difficult for kids, and it’s then that you’ll see younger kids act out and older ones be more vocal about being upset.”

Other resources:

Help Kids Cope by UCLA is a free app that provides family resources for all natural disasters.

Trinka and Sam: The Big Fire – a downloadable coloring book from NCTSN to help young children and their families talk about feelings and worries after experiencing a large-scale fire, like a wildfire.

Child trauma and disasters from The National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

Parent guidelines for helping children impacted by wildfires from the NCTSN.

To find an EMDR trauma specialist therapist: EMDRIA International Association.

To find a Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (TF-CBT) therapist.

About the author

Kati Blocker has always been driven to learn and explore the world around her. And every day, as a writer for UCHealth, Kati meets inspiring people, learns about life-saving technology, and gets to know the amazing people who are saving lives each day. Even better, she gets to share their stories with the world.

As a journalism major at the University of Wyoming, Kati wrote for her college newspaper. She also studied abroad in Swansea, Wales, while simultaneously writing for a Colorado metaphysical newspaper.

After college, Kati was a reporter for the Montrose Daily Press and the Telluride Watch, covering education and health care in rural Colorado, as well as city news and business.

When she's not writing, Kati is creating her own stories with her husband Joel and their two young children.