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Traumatized by the wild fires?

Several of my clients have been traumatized by watching media coverage of the wild fires that are raging through Fort McMurray and the surrounding areas.

These clients have signed up to welcome people that have been forced to leave Fort McMurray into their homes. They are fostering animals that their owners can’t currently care for. They are organizing donations of food, water and clothing for the survivors of the fires and driving the donations to drop-off centres in Northern Alberta.

A problem exists, however, when you are being traumatized by the wild fires. What does this mean exactly? It means that you are unable to separate what is happening in Fort McMurray to the city’s residents, and what happened to you in your own past.

Said differently, it’s a problem when the wild fires are causing you to experience a re-enactment of your own developmental trauma (meaning trauma from childhood).

When people are re-traumatized, they have been emotionally hi-jacked. They have stopped paying attention exclusively to the current events that are unfolding, and are feeling the pain, not of the survivors of the fires, but of their own past. This becomes apparent to me when my clients are hurting too much. Caring too much. Offering to help too much.

When this happens, the individual being re-traumatized is of help to no one – but especially not to themselves. In these situations, I ask these individuals to put the oxygen mask on themselves first.

Another way I say this is by asking them to imagine that they are in a boat that has tipped over in the water five kilometers from shore. It’s going to be a long swim. I ask them to think about the other people in the water with them, but to realize that they will not make it to shore if they try to tow the others with them. Instead, I suggest that they wish the other people well and hope that they make it to shore. I then suggest that they start swimming with the focus of rescuing themselves.

So how can they do this? When they have been triggered by the events unfolding in Fort McMurray, how can they self-rescue? First, I suggest that now is not the time for them to open their homes to traumatized people because this will further trigger them. Instead, I strongly suggest that they stop paying attention to all types of media. No more watching the news, reading articles on the internet, looking at the newspaper, or listening to the radio. Unplug. Completely.

Second, I suggest that they start focusing on improving their own self-care. Only participate in activities that are soothing. Stop interacting with people that are triggering. Now is not the time to have family members visit when relationships are strained. It may, however, be a very good time to start attending more yoga classes and listening to calming music. To take long walks along the river.

My heart goes out to the people of Fort McMurray that are affected by the wild fires. I am aware, however, that many of the first people that step forward to help are people that have been traumatized themselves. That have trauma backgrounds.

It makes sense that these people want to help because they immediately empathize with the pain of others. They’ve been in similar situations, often with no one to help them when they needed help most.

When I ask these clients to step back and let others provide the care, they get it. They are aware that they are triggered by their pasts as soon as I point it out to them.

For those that don’t have trauma backgrounds and that can do some heavy lifting today for the people of Fort McMurray and surrounds areas, thank you. For those of you who are feeling triggered, give yourself permission to step back. Learn how to put your oxygen mask on first. Get the help you need to heal, first.

Dr. Patricia Turner, PhD, Registered Psychologist, Calgary, Alberta

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