Embracing Teachable Moments from a Fight, Flight, or Freeze Situation

My family had to evacuate our house two weeks ago due to the risk posed by nearby wildfires.  I’m thankful that this amounted to nothing more than an inconvenience and we were able to return home that same evening. But the experience left me thinking about what really matters in life and about being prepared for emergencies.

Before leaving the house, we had a short time to choose items to take with us. It was quickly apparent that other than assuring our own safety, we focused on our pets, photos, and sentimental objects that can’t be replaced. Because my mom’s house burned in the Oakland Firestorm in 1991, I am sensitive about missing special, irreplaceable items that she wasn’t able to save before fleeing.

As my family tried to gather possessions, I started to have negative thoughts about the “what ifs” and “why haven’t I planned this out better?” I wasn’t thinking clearly and wasn’t guiding my children to get what was needed. It felt like we were scrambling to think about what was important in a moment of worry and our brains were “off-line.” As I consider the brain’s default panic modes of fight, flight, or freeze, we were in flight—literally! It’s no wonder that I was struggling to harness my executive functioning skills. 

Although this was a scary situation, I’m glad that it happened. Now my family can benefit from this opportunity to have a “real life” rehearsal under stress.  Here are my takeaways from the experience and some tips that may be useful for your family too:

  • Consider setting up your own rehearsal so you’ll be more prepared if an emergency occurs. Planning ahead helps to automate the response, decrease panic, and help everyone know what to do and what to grab in the moment. The time to plan is not when you are stressed.
  • Explaining emergency preparedness steps to children is also an important part of the process. This may help them to manage their own anxiety, although it might also create anxiety. Be aware of their reactions and seek extra support as needed. Be sure to include them in a rehearsal so they’ll get that chance to practice in advance.
  • Collect hard-to-replace legal documents, like birth and marriage certificates, social security cards, passports, and the deed to your house. Put them in a safe deposit box in your bank or in a “go-bag” near your front door. Here’s more info about a “go-bag” and​what it should include: https://lifehacker.com/how-to-pack-an-evacuation-go-bag-1819669582 ​
  • In addition to useful items like clothing, toiletries, medications, water, and non-perishable food, you may also want to put sentimental items in the go-bag. For our family, these included a few game-day baseballs, a special cowboy hat that belonged to my husband’s grandpa, my grandma’s necklaces, etc.​ 
  • On top of your go-bag, place a list of extra items to take if you have time. This may include laptops, artwork, and other valuables.
  • For photo albums with high sentimental value, scan the images to create digital versions. Scan other important documents, like your driver’s license, medical records, birth and marriage certificates, wills, etc., even if you’ve put hard copies into the go- bag. It’s always a good idea to have backup.
  • Consider forming or joining a neighborhood group and taking classes to increase emergency preparedness. CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) classes are available throughout the Bay Area: http://resilience.abag.ca.gov/preparedness/cert/

Given the realities of living in California, preparedness is more important than ever and the more we can do to be prepared, the calmer we can feel during these stressful situations. This is a perfect example of how executive functioning and planning ahead can help with emotional regulation in real-time situations. I hope these tips will be useful in helping to keep your family and community safe and using a stressful situation as a teachable moment for future planning and building executive functioning skills.

Although this was a scary situation, I’m glad that it happened. Now my family can benefit from this opportunity to have a “real life” rehearsal under stress.  Here are my takeaways from the experience and some tips that may be useful for your family too:​

  • Consider setting up your own rehearsal so you’ll be more prepared if an emergency occurs. Planning ahead helps to automate the response, decrease panic, and help everyone know what to do and what to grab in the moment. The time to plan is not when you are stressed.
  • Explaining emergency preparedness steps to children is also an important part of the process. This may help them to manage their own anxiety, although it might also create anxiety. Be aware of their reactions and seek extra support as needed. Be sure to include them in a rehearsal so they’ll get that chance to practice in advance.
  • Collect hard-to-replace legal documents, like birth and marriage certificates, social security cards, passports, and the deed to your house. Put them in a safe deposit box in your bank or in a “go-bag” near your front door. Here’s more info about a “go-bag” and​what it should include: https://lifehacker.com/how-to-pack-an-evacuation-go-bag-1819669582 ​
  • In addition to useful items like clothing, toiletries, medications, water, and non-perishable food, you may also want to put sentimental items in the go-bag. For our family, these included a few game-day baseballs, a special cowboy hat that belonged to my husband’s grandpa, my grandma’s necklaces, etc.​ 
  • On top of your go-bag, place a list of extra items to take if you have time. This may include laptops, artwork, and other valuables.
  • For photo albums with high sentimental value, scan the images to create digital versions. Scan other important documents, like your driver’s license, medical records, birth and marriage certificates, wills, etc., even if you’ve put hard copies into the go- bag. It’s always a good idea to have backup.
  • Consider forming or joining a neighborhood group and taking classes to increase emergency preparedness. CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) classes are available throughout the Bay Area: http://resilience.abag.ca.gov/preparedness/cert/

Given the realities of living in California, preparedness is more important than ever and the more we can do to be prepared, the calmer we can feel during these stressful situations. This is a perfect example of how executive functioning and planning ahead can help with emotional regulation in real-time situations. I hope these tips will be useful in helping to keep your family and community safe and using a stressful situation as a teachable moment for future planning and building executive functioning skills.

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