In the wake of the devastating wildfires where so many people lost everything, combined with the stress of the upcoming holiday season, many people will be struggling with mental and emotional health issues. As in any major disaster, the initial push of support and services will eventually go away, before people’s mental well-being has returned. This often leaves people with feelings of more hopelessness and despair than they had before. The holidays especially are generally a very sentimental and emotional time in people’s lives and the tragedy will undoubtedly hit displaced residents harder than ever in the upcoming weeks.
“Right now in particular, post fires, I have a great concern about people’s mental health and we’re seeing that we’re just into the next phase of this trauma,” says Peggy Ledner-Spaulding, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Manager at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital Outpatient Behavioral Health Services. “People are going to be going through complicated grief processes. As mental health professionals we’re very concerned and want to be very vigilant to help our community to heal. People need to be aware that they, and their loved ones and neighbors are going to be struggling for some time to come. It’s a grief process. People are going to go through anger and sadness and hopelessness.”
Just as important as it is to take care of one’s physical health, maintaining emotional health is crucial to ensuring overall well-being.
“Through research and study we’ve found that there’s a very strong correlation between stress and physical and mental well being,” says Ledner-Spaulding. “Chronic stress decreases people’s immune system, so they’re much more vulnerable to physical illness and all kinds of chronic pain, headaches, and GI distress. It’s all connected – the mind and the body. If we are under daily chronic stress, that takes its toll on people’s physical and mental well being. That in turn impacts and impairs people’s relationships and their work or school performance and their overall ability to function, including their sleep and their appetite.”
A growing movement to combat stress and ensure optimal mental health is mindfulness – the act of being in the present moment without worrying about the past or the future which you have no control over. By bringing your mind’s attention to the present, you relax your nerves, breathe easier and calm your mind.
“What is really helpful through the day, even if it’s just 20 seconds, is to just close your eyes and take some breaths and release stress and anxiety,” says Ledner-Spaulding. “We often don’t even realize we’re carrying tension, in our work and in our school or doing our daily chores. Whatever we’re doing carries the potential for stress and anxiety. Even when you’re driving, you can spend about 15 seconds to a minute taking some nice cleansing breaths – taking in relaxation and breathing out anxiety and stress. We forget and as we get more stressed in the day we breath more shallow and we’re not taking care of our whole system.”
Another approach to ensuring mental health is to maintain a balanced lifestyle. When evaluating all the important factors of your life – work, family, recreation, physical health and exercise, social life, and spirituality, for example, it is important to recognize if your life is skewed too much towards one or more area. By setting small goals, making your well being a priority in your life, and holding yourself accountable, you can eventually build changes into your life that will eventually alter your lifestyle for the better.
“It’s important to work on daily and weekly balance in our lives so that we’re not all work and no play or we’re not going home and spending too much time alone,” says Ledner-Spaulding. “All of this adds up to taking good care of ‘me’ - building a foundation inside of yourself with good mental, physical, emotional and spiritual well-being. From there you can build relationships with others. But you first have to have that strong foundation in yourself of good self-care or your relationships will struggle.”
Lastly, practicing gratitude helps keep positivity in your life. By refocusing your thoughts to positive details in your life, you can decrease your blood pressure, which translates into better health in all areas of your well-being.
“We want to balance the negative with the positive,” says Ledner-Spaulding. “There are a lot of things to be grateful for, but sometimes we have to dig a little deeper. They can be the simplest things. It helps to balance our thoughts and our emotions, our moods, so we’re not just going down a negative spiral. That impacts our ability to sleep, our appetite, and our well being.”
Ledner-Spaulding encourages any person struggling with mental health to reach out to St. Joseph Health’s Outpatient Behavioral Health Services by calling 707-547-5450 for further information and resources.