A Deeper Rebuilding

Recovering from trauma is possible. Listening to your body, recognizing symptoms, identifying new feelings, reaching out for help earlier, all give a better likelihood of recovery.

Brilliant green grass and sunshine flowers push through land charred by the Woolsey Fire. Debris removal is well under way, according to Jolene Guerrero of Los Angeles County Public Works. Some areas of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area have already reopened, with more openings anticipated in the next few months, adds National Park Service spokesperson Ana Cholo. Yet in spite of these optimistic facts, some survivors continue to struggle to rebuild their inner landscapes.

Extreme events which disrupt a sense of safety and stability can cause acute traumatic stress. The fires certainly wreaked havoc in many people’s lives. In fact, those in the flames’ path may not be the only ones experiencing traumatic stress. In some cases, individuals watching the disaster unfold on television or seeing pictures on social media experience symptoms of trauma, either because of the sheer horror of the event or because the current situation triggers something from their past.


It’s “too much too fast or too little for too long,” says Elaine Miller-Karas, co-founder and executive director of the Trauma Resource Institute. The recent fires may fit either or both of these descriptions. A house containing a family’s pets, belongings, even connections to past generations, can be gone in minutes. Then, depending on available resources, a family can be without a stable home and basic necessities for a significant period of time. These circumstances will bump a person out of what Miller-Karas calls the “resilient zone,” the inner condition of being able to manage the post-trauma stress and navigate life successfully.

Racing to recover too quickly can also create problems. Survivors can become so absorbed in rebuilding and getting back to known routines that it distracts from taking stock of inner needs. If this happens, and trauma gets suppressed, it can become even more difficult to treat when it inevitably rears up.

“Recognizing the symptoms right away and processing through them, gives one a better likelihood of recovery,” says Bobbi Jankovich, LMFT and trauma specialist. She advises people to regularly check in with their bodies, making an effort to identify new feelings. Reaching out for help earlier can make all the difference.

Possible indicators of traumatic stress include gastrointestinal problems; racing heartbeat; insomnia, or sleeping too much; nightmares; a loss of faith or new extreme faith; forgetfulness or hypervigilance. Any significant and ongoing change in body function, behavior, or thinking may indicate a serious problem.

“If you’re having physical symptoms, get checked out by your doctor,” says Miller-Karas. “But once physical causes are ruled out, your body may be crying out for another kind of help.”

Another possible sign of trauma is guilt, explains Miller-Karas. Questioning whether more could have been done or if something should have been done differently is common.

“Especially in children who often feel like they failed in some way,” she says. But even adults “create their own story about what happened, and it often includes shame and blame,” she adds. These feelings can be devastating over time, but they don’t have to be.


Treatment with a trained professional may be necessary, but Janovich says social support can also help heal, especially when it involves the support of others who have been subjected to the same event. “We can lose our ability to imagine a positive future. Janovich recommends community healing events that bring people together, especially through creativity.

While the fires raged, those in the path of danger displayed unimaginable bravery. With the direct threat in the past, and facing the need to rebuild and heal, we see that spirit again.

County officials held public meetings in an effort to understand how to best support survivors. Poets and community leaders organized a creative event, Healing the Fire (see pages 15-18), at the Topanga Library hoping to give voice to the shared fear and grief lingering in the hearts and minds of so many.

Healing has begun, and for those who find themselves in need of more support, trained experts are available to help. Recovery from trauma is possible.


To find therapists who specialize in the treatment of trauma, Psychology Today’s website allows you to search by geographic area as well as for type of therapy offered. The links below are for practitioners who specialize in the treatment of trauma:

Psychology Today online also offers a directory of therapists specializing in Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

For therapists who specialize in Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), follow these links:

EMDR International Association also provides a searchable directory on its website.

For a less traditional approach to healing trauma, the American Art Therapy Association has a searchable practitioner directory.


Kait Leonard

Kait Leonard, Ph.D., holds graduate degrees in literature and psychology. She shares her home with five parrots and her American bulldog, Seeger. Her writing interests include psychology, holistic wellness for both people and animals, and whatever human interest topics cross her path.

  1. Thank you so much for this. I think it’s also important to acknowledge the extreme stress those who “survived” this fire experienced. 250,000 people mandatorily evacuated their homes in the Santa Monica Mountains, and while many, in canyons like Topanga, where the Fire did not reach this time, were able to return to our homes, anxiety, sorrow for the magnitude of the loss for our friends and neighbors, and the natural environment, even depression about the future, questioning our human ability to change the direction of extreme weather events caused by climate change, nags at our very core. The magnitude of the Woolsey Fire, fast, hot, and unstoppable, was like nothing any of us could have imagined. We grieve, too, and finding our human resiliency, moving forward is an emotional and cognitive balancing act, between acknowledging this new reality and our instincts to recover, rebuild, and restore, without denying how vulnerable we all are, every day, to our shared human condition.

    The rains have brought a kind of rebirth to our natural landscape, but also a newer, keener sense of responsibility to care for the blessings here in the mountains. I see bees on the flowers, birds nesting, swarms of butterflies, sprigs of green on oak trees I had previously thought were done in by the long drought, hear frogs singing at night, and the coyotes yelping, and now, much more consciously, mindfully, express my gratitude for each. It helps. It’s more than appreciation, it’s talking to the place I live in. Sharing our aliveness. But, still pulling the non-native weeds, so many this year, like I’ve done every year of the 44 years my family has lived here. That helps, too. Doing the things we can to protect and preserve, nurture the goodness that is still rooted all around us.

    I recall after the 1993 fires, with heavy rains predicted within a week, gathering at the school auditorium and listening to the biologists talk about those roots: we were told that the Toyon and other native vegetation, while burned above ground, should not be removed, as they have roots deep into the mountains, thousands of years old some of them, and will come back. And, they did. It took time. Recovery is not instant. Healing is a process. Never easy. I am grateful, to you, Kate Leonard, and the MMN, for writing and publishing this piece. It helps, too.

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