The fire was like an unpredictable assailant

Dr. Sumalpong is helping fire victims to achieve a greater sense of calm.

by Pilar Sumalpong, Ph. D., Licensed Psychologist CA PSY 27891, NRHSP #55927

Anyone exposed to the Thomas Fire could have strong and lasting emotional reactions. We all experience fear, danger, loss and grief at some point in our lives but residents of Ventura and Santa Barbara counties are describing classic symptoms of traumatic stress and many are not sure how to cope or don’t understand why they feel the way they do. Some have said “I feel like things are unreal,” or describe distortions in time, problems with memory or emotional detachment and numbness. Some want to hide out in their homes and don’t feel the same sense of safety when going about their day. Others describe feeling drawn to use substances or alcohol to achieve a greater sense of calm or “normalcy.”

Judith Lewis Herman wrote “After a traumatic experience, the human system of self-preservation seems to go onto permanent alert, as if the danger might return at any moment” (1997). For those who lost their homes or property the dust has still not settled. While one part of a person’s mind may rationally understand that the danger has passed, the emotional, irrational part of the mind still feels the tension and chaos like a lasting stamp on the nervous system.

When we reflect on the behavior of the fire itself, it was like an unpredictable assailant, attacking at random. Its behavior was totally unpredictable and there was no negotiating with it. Anyone in close proximity to the blaze was aware on some level that anything could happen. That knowledge or that kind of brush with one’s own mortality is a jolt to the psyche that can have a ripple effect lasting months to years.

The key to overcoming traumatic stress reactions may seem somewhat counterintuitive: Confronting the traumatic memory and all the emotions that come with it are the most direct way to put the past in the past. Avoidance or suppression of thoughts or feelings delays the natural healing processes of the mind. Recovery is all about delving in and accepting one’s emotions as natural and part of moving on.

Confronting and processing emotions can be as simple as talking about everything you went through with trusted friends or family members. Writing about what happened and how you felt and rereading your narrative several times over the span of a few weeks can help you gain different perspectives on your experience.

More structured ways of processing emotions can be achieved by doing some reading or completing a workbook on trauma recovery, attending group or individual therapy. Therapy does not have to be long-term and can be focused on addressing the effects of the Thomas Fire or it can be a lengthier process depending on a person’s needs and preferences. As a consumer of therapy a person has the right to ask for the kind of treatment they want.

The most critical piece is to remember not to isolate and withdraw. This is a time for leaning on one another for support and staying connected. Freud wrote “One day, in retrospect, the years of struggle will strike you as the most beautiful” (1960). Trusting that there are things you can do to help yourself and others is what makes this possible.

Dr. Sumalpong may be reached at drpilarsumalpong@gmail.com.

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