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WALDO CANYON FIRE: Blaze also takes psychological toll

June 27, 2012
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Maybe you lost your home or your business. Maybe you know someone who did. Or perhaps 24-hour TV coverage of evacuation zones, road closing and burn lines has just left you feeling oddly overwhelmed.

“We’ve all lost, to some degree, our sense of security and who we are as a community,” said Dr. Steve Tucker, a psychologist for the Penrose-St. Francis Health Center. “It’s a change of feeling about our community, and that creates a sense of loss.”

Initially, people may not notice the psychological stress, Tucker said. A feeling of numbness or disbelief is common in the immediate wake of a tragedy. Eventually, though, the grief, fear and confusion may set in.

“It takes some time, depending on the individual and what the circumstances are.”

This kind of tragedy can hit adults hard, but it can be especially difficult for children. Knowing how much to tell children about the bad news is a challenging balance for parents to find.

“You don’t need to tell the little guys a whole lot,” DeGross said.

Keeping it simple and sticking to a routine can help kids cope. Even if uprooted by evacuations, the same activities and same schedule, like nap or snack time, will help young ones deal with the crisis.

Older children deserve more transparency, said DeGross. Telling your adolescents and teens about the tragedy can foster empathy. And offering ways to help victims can make kids feel empowered.

It’s important to acknowledge the pain your children may be feeling. Playing, listening to music, and spending time alone or with friends can be valuable emotional outlets for kids.

Nonetheless, the power of a positive example is key, said Tucker, the psychologist at Penrose.

“Kids will respond to things in their world according to how the adults in their world are responding.”

If you notice symptoms of shock or denial in yourself or your loved ones, do not hesitate to seek help. Heightened levels of agitation are normal, Tucker said, but increasingly destructive or reclusive behavior are red flags.

Racing thoughts, difficulty concentrating and bodily shaking are also signs of mental duress. Although these symptoms are normal stress responses for everyone, if they persist for several days they are cause for concern.

Most important, be sure to address your physiological needs. Physical fatigue exacerbates mental stress, so it is crucial to get plenty of sleep and eat healthily.

“You’ve definitely got to take care of your body,” said Dr. Jennifer DeGross, psychologist and director of Adult and Rural Services for Aspen Pointe, a nonprofit behavioral health service in Colorado Springs.

Despite being displaced from their homes, evacuees staying at area Red Cross shelters have remained generally hopeful and upbeat, said said Heike Barnett, R.N. and volunteer at the Red Cross’s Cheyenne Mountain high school shelter.

“There’s a little bit of anxiety in some folks,” Barnett said Wednesday. “But when they come in and see that people care about them, the anxiety usually settles down.”

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