What is the best way to deal with disasters, like the devastating Camp Fire in and around Paradise? Linda E. Johnson, psychology professor at Butte-Glenn Community College in Oroville, says she’s thought a lot about this both professionally and personally. She lost her family home and made a dramatic escape from the fire that engulfed Paradise.
“I’m 60 and have lived a rambunctious life. It was one of the most horrific things I’ve lived through,” she said describing the drive through pitch-dark smoke, fire glowing on either side of the road and hearing gas tanks exploding somewhere in the dark. She picked up a mom and three kids, ages 3, 5 and 18, who were walking down the road to escape the fire. “I took them into my car. We sang songs while I drove. We thought we were going to die.”
We all have PTS – it doesn’t have to develop into PTSD
Everyone who survived the fire has post-traumatic stress, she said. “It is totally normal to be traumatized after something like this. We all have PTS – we can prevent and reduce it from turning into a disorder (PTSD) by moving our bodies.”
The mind reacts to how your body is feeling while the mind figures out what it’s going to do next, she explained. So, do physically productive things with your body. Go get resources. Network. Let friends and colleagues know how you’re doing and what you need. When people reach out, feel the love. “I have people texting me every day, sharing their love and support. Trust me, it matters.”
“The more empowered people feel, the more physical things they can do, the less PTSD will set in,” she added.
Finding stability and safety is key. Yes, there’s nowhere to live here and everyone is feeling lost, confused and dazed. Organizing things helps, Johnson says. “Even if you’ve lost everything, there’s still a way to create pockets and corners where you can organize things. A miniature sense of order gives you a sense of safety. Then, stop and notice the little things. Notice the stability you have right now, and ground yourself in that.”
Johnson, who chairs the Social and Behavioral Sciences Department, suggests those who lost homes in the fire restart routines as quickly as possible, especially when children are involved. “Even the simple routes, like having dinner at 6 p.m. just like you used to, is important. Grab one of those routines and stick with it.”
“We’ve been thrown into chaos so the more we can gently establish order, the calmer our bodies and minds will be, and the faster we can heal and deal with reality,” Johnson noted.
Shocks like the fire rattles and anesthetizes the body. “The shock wears off in phases, and as it wears off you start to feel the emotions, and your mind wraps itself around reality. Most of us are safe, having heroically moved through that, but we’re defrosting from shock,” she said. “As that happens, nerves are on edge. Be gentle with yourself and others.”
Reaching out and communicating is important, she reiterated. “Talking it over helps and there are counselors ready to help. As you talk it over your body gets used to it. So, rather than cling to a trauma, you can let it go and move on.”
On the flip side – the best thing to do to help a friend or colleague involved in the Camp Fire is to reach out. Many will text a friend or colleague once or twice after a disaster to make sure they’re safe, but Johnson advises texting or make a connection every day for weeks to come, or until it’s over. “Be creative about how you can help, and don’t understate the value of a listening ear.”