Where I Stand: Disaster Fatigue – staying calm in a prolonged, stressful situation

By Ken KD Donnell
The experience I gained through managing the Miracle City fire refugee relief center in Chico immediately after the Paradise Camp Fire has helped me to identify the early signs of a big problem that is affecting all of us right now – DISASTER FATIGUE.  No matter how positive we try to be, and no matter how busy we keep ourselves, all of us are being impacted by DISASTER FATIGUE.  It will affect each of us in different ways, at different times, and with varying degrees of intensity.  What I can reassure, with 100 percent certainty, is that we in Plumas County now are all somehow affected by DISASTER FATIGUE, and we would each be wise to take steps to address this in a proactive manner.
There are many variations of DISATGER FATIGUE,, such as evacuee fatigue, first responder fatigue, refugees who lost their home fatigue, those who are tired of sweeping up ash everyday and breathing terrible air fatigue., etc. There are many symptoms, including shortness of temper, anxiety, depression, difficulty sleeping, or difficulty staying awake, difficulty eating, increased substance abuse, and just an overall sense of numbness.  Here are some of the ways I observed persons stuck in a disaster scenario best cope with these symptoms.  
1.  Prayer, meditation, and spiritual practice.    The people who I saw do the best during the post Camp Fire days were “people of faith”, and “people of community.” I witnessed many different faiths and communities pass through Miracle City.  Some people put their faith in Jesus, some in Darwin, and others in Harley Davidson, but each community embodied faith, ritual and a sense of higher purpose. .  
2.  Talk it out.  Don’t hold it in.   Please do not be afraid to reach out to anyone for solace and comfort.  This could a long lost friend, or distant family member, or perhaps the new friends and fellow evacuees many find themselves suddenly sharing a life with.  All of these are opportunities to connect, and reconnect with someone,   Being able share those parts of ourselves which are so sorely tested during a time of disaster, is often a huge first step towards recovery and strong mental health.  
3.  Strong Daily Habits & routine.   People who know how to maintain or reestablish simple daily routines find this helps to maintain a sense of balance and order in one’s life while surrounded by chaos.  Personal hygiene routines, organizing regular meals, spending time once a day to re-organize stuff and stay neat, doing simple exercises or yoga, and similar, help bring some order from the chaos.  
4.  Doing something special every day.  When one is surrounded by chaos, it is good to take one moment every day to do something special for oneself, or one’s family.  Taking a walk, preparing and eating a special meal, having a movie time (even if using a cell phone), playing music together, going out for ice cream, reading out loud from a special book, playing a simple board game or cards.  Be careful to take the time to give yourself and your family at least one special moment every day.  It is important to always have something to look forward to, for both children and adults.
5.  Breathe before you speak.   In a disaster situation, everyone is tense, and prone to volatile emotions.  Simple problems can often feel huge, and emotional outbursts are common.  The people I witnessed who best  navigated these emotional minefields were the ones who took a moment to think before speaking.  This either avoided starting a dramatic scene, or helped to defuse someone else’s drama.
6.  Embrace forgiveness.  Blame never accomplishes anything, but it often causes much pain and greatly impedes recovery for everyone. Everyone is a victim in a disaster. But even if we are a victim, we do not need to cast our anger and anxieties on to others who are just as injured as we. Most important, when we can forgive others, we can also forgive ourselves.  Let’s save the great amount of energy these emotions can consume for more constructive purposes, and let’s not waste a single moment in senseless blame.