Evacuations are stressful. Mental health professionals weigh in on how to manage that anxiety

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Thousands of British Columbians have now been faced with being ordered to leave their homes immediately, be it because of wildfire, flooding or another threat. The climate crisis doesn’t appear to be slowing, meaning many more may find themselves in that situation in the years to come. 

And when someone knocks on your door telling you to leave right away, it can bring up some pretty intense anxiety. 

Bonnie Fehr and her husband were ordered to leave their property about an hour from Burns Lake, B.C., on July 9 as a wildfire approached. She said that at the time, her mental health was “not good.”

“You don’t sleep. That’s the biggest thing.”

Flames rise behind houses under a dark sky.
In this picture dated Aug. 23, 2003, flames and smoke rise dangerously close to a residential area of Kelowna, B.C. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

Registered psychologist Dr. Kathy Keating, based in Kelowna, B.C., says it’s completely normal and expected that anyone in that situation would feel acute stress. 

Many will notice physical symptoms, including trouble sleeping, increased heart rate and upset stomach, among other things, she said. 

But again, those reactions are normal, Prince George counsellor Jenny DeReis emphasizes. 

“That usually will last for a couple of days, and it does tend to taper off by the two-week mark,” she said. 

If your anxiety persists beyond a couple of weeks, DeReis said, it may be time to consider seeking professional help. 

However, there are tools to help minimize the impact of that acute stress before you need to seek counselling. 

Plan ahead

Keating said one of the biggest things people can do to protect themselves from the stress and anxiety that comes with evacuations is to plan ahead. 

“If you’ve lived in British Columbia for any period of time, you’re unfortunately aware that this could be a reality,” she said.

Making sure a go bag is packed with essentials and important documents and items are ready to go will mitigate some stress when leaving on short notice. 

The province has compiled a list of items that should be included in an emergency bag, including phone chargers, medication and water. 

However, Keating says even if you’re prepared for an evacuation, anxiety will still exist. 

“It just means you’ll be a little bit more prepared, and you won’t have to think through those things at the time. When we’re anxious, our cognitive skills aren’t as sharp — they’re not supposed to be. Your body is focused on just surviving in that situation.”

Self-care

While self-care may feel like a bit of a buzzword, DeReis says there’s no better time to indulge in those practices than when under acute stress. 

“Once you’ve had that fight or flight response and then you come down from it, you can be quite exhausted mentally and physically.”

A woman sits cross-legged with her eyes closed
Meditation, walks and playing sports are all recommended self-care during times of acute stress. (Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

She suggests spending time with loved ones, taking a walk, meditating or playing sports. 

In particular, she said, guided meditations that focus on progressive muscle relaxation can return your mind to the present moment. 

Establish a routine

Keeping some sort of routine can be challenging when you’re out of your home and familiar surroundings, but it’s key to managing stress, Keating said.

That includes eating proper meals, having a sleep routine and exercising. 

“Is that going to look exactly like when you are at home, and you’re comfortable? Probably not, but that’s really, really important, particularly meals — we never do well when we’re not properly fuelled.”

Limit information consumption

It’s tough not to want to know every little thing going on when it comes to the well-being of your home or business during an evacuation, but being glued to the news and social media can be detrimental to your health, Keating said. 

“We have so much access these days, but you don’t need to watch it minute by minute.”

She suggests having one reliable source — be that a friend or one specific news channel that will give you the information you need to know.

Help out

Keating said that for some, finding a way to contribute and help out with the situation can help ease the tension during an evacuation because it’s something you can control. 

“If there’s an opportunity for that, and you feel like you have the bandwidth to be able to do that, then that can work for some people.”



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