'The lost summer’: the emotional and spiritual toll of the smoke apocalypse

Anxiety, fear and grief: what experts are learning about the mental health effects of wildfire haze.

Headlines declared it “terrifying.” Edmonton was dubbed an “apocalyptic ghost town.” The Star declared, “It’s not the end of the world. It just looks that way.”

As it turns out, there’s little disagreement when it comes to wildfire smoke: it’s alarming.

Residents of the western provinces have been choking on smoke in recent weeks, as smoke from the more than 550 wildfires burning in B.C. drifts around the country. Special air quality alerts have been issued in Vancouver, Victoria, Prince George, Salmon Arm, Edmonton, Calgary, Regina, the Battlefords and even Manitoba — and the list goes on.

Air quality alerts are issued to warn residents about the dangers of fine particulate matter present in wildfire smoke, which can cause numerous health effects including everything from sinus irritation to heart attacks.  

But it’s not just breathing difficulties and watery eyes that impact people living in smoke-affected areas.

For many, it’s the unsettling feeling of living under a thick cloak of smoke, one that obscures the sun, wipes out the blue sky and hides the landscape in a disconcerting brown-grey veil.

Little research has been done to quantify the psychological effects of widespread and persistent wildfire smoke, though researchers have found ties to feelings of hopelessness, irritability, depression, fear, isolation, change of sleep patterns and lethargy. The research is scarce, in part because prolonged and widespread smoke is “a relatively new phenomenon in North America,” according to Dr. Sarah Henderson, senior environmental health scientist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control.

Increasingly though, experts are concerned about the mental health effects of our new reality: weeks of seemingly unending smoke wafting across the western provinces each summer.

“It’s very oppressive to live under smoky conditions,” Henderson said. “A couple of days of it is more tolerable than a couple of weeks of it.”

‘The Lost Summer’

One of the few studies examining the mental health effects of prolonged periods of wildfire smoke was published last year in the Canadian Journal of Public Health. It looked at the impact of wildfire smoke in the Yellowknife area during the 2014 fire season, which saw significant smoke. The study found “a direct connection between the wildfires and smoke and a decrease in [people’s] mental and emotional health.”

When widespread smoke moves into a community, residents are often advised to stay indoors and close their windows, or to spend more time indoors with air conditioning. The study found that this leads to significantly less time spent outside, or socializing.

When smoke persists, closing your windows is no longer enough for many people. If a person doesn’t have an air filtration system, indoor air quality can eventually mirror the dangerous air quality outside.

“There’s a sense of not being able to get away,” said Dr. Warren Dodd, assistant professor at the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, and the lead researcher on the study. “Where do you go? There’s smoke everywhere.”

“One of the strongest emotions that people felt was isolation,” Dodd said. “This extended period of smoke meant that they weren’t able to leave their houses for the summer. People felt like they were isolated from the neighbours and from their community.”

First Nations participants reported an inability to take part in traditional activities, from hunting and fishing to berry harvesting. Other residents noted they were unable to work in their gardens, ride their bikes or take their kids outside to play.

Dr. Courtney Howard, board president of the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment, was also a researcher on the Yellowknife study. She recalls the dangers of isolation and inactivity due to wildfire smoke.

“Physicians are increasingly giving prescriptions of exercise to people — whether it’s heart disease or anxiety or depression.” Howard said. “So not only do people have the smoke impacting their health, they’re losing the activity that was the treatment of their disease.”

“People don’t realize the health benefits they’re getting even from just walking to work, until they can’t do that anymore.”

This feeling of isolation and inactivity has resonated for many people this summer, too. Smoke has already forced people to re-evaluate their summer plans, from community events to outdoor activities.

In Edmonton, events at the annual marathon were postponed due to poor air quality. Flights were halted from parts of B.C.’s interior. Kamloops cancelled an annual celebration that typically draws 10,000 people, triathlons were cancelled in Penticton and Kelowna, and in Calgary, the annual Ride to Conquer Cancer was cancelled halfway through, with 1,900 cyclists picked up just a few hours into the event.

As one participant from Yellowknife told researchers for the summer of smoke study: “It was the lost summer… it takes a deep, emotional toll, if not a spiritual toll.”

‘Homesick when you’re still at home’

There’s something larger at play for many people when they wake up to dim, smoky skies.

Dodd points to the concept of solastalgia to explain the gloom people feel when the smoke rolls in — and sticks around for weeks or months.

“It’s basically the feeling of being homesick when you’re still at home,” he explained of the feeling people get when their community is shrouded in smoke. “It’s really this concept of stress and anxiety about environmental change that’s happening in a place that is very familiar or at home.”

For many people, Dodd said, wildfire smoke is particularly frightening because it feels emblematic of larger environmental issues. “It’s connected to things that might happen in the future.”

Howard echoes the theory. “Increasingly, people are having anxiety about what’s to come, sadness about what’s to come, and even depression around the climate-related state of the world,” she said. These feelings have come to be known as “ecological grief.”

Dr. Ashlee Cunsolo, director of the Labrador Institute of Memorial University, wrote about ecological grief in article published in the journal Nature earlier this year. She and her coauthor defined the concept of ecological grief as “the grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems, and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.”

“Once we published [the article] we were inundated with people from all over the world saying  ‘this is exactly how I feel but I never had a word for it,’ ” she told The Narwhal.

For many people, Cunsolo said, there is a close connection between people, place and identity. When the landscape changes — even if the change is temporary, like with wildfire smoke — people may begin to feel a sense of alienation.

“Land connection is so much a part of who people are, that when it’s disrupted through things like climate-induced wildfires, or loss of sea ice or severe storms that are increasing then people’s sense of identity shifts with that sense of place,” she said.

“People love the landscape and it’s a place of solace, so when that landscape changes, their sense of identity and connection also shifts.”

For many people, widespread wildfire smoke is off-putting to say the least. For others, there’s a sense of foreboding.

“People called it a smoke apocalypse and it felt like that,” said Howard of the particularly smoky summer in Yellowknife, where she works as an emergency physician. “It becomes a real marker of ‘whoa, nature is powerful and it can change and we are small and this is big.’”

“It reorders our sense of place in the world.”

Grief as a ‘motivating force’

Howard says part of the problem for many people is “the feeling that this might be the new norm.”

When the streetlights come on in the middle of the day, ash rains down from the sky and the smoke blocks out the midnight sun, people begin to wonder if this might become more common. Cunsolo calls this “anticipatory grief.”
“People are starting to think this is a permanent shift,” said Cunsolo. “With that permanent shift comes the potential for a permanent loss of things that are important to them.”

As wildfire smoke continues to blanket much of the West, Cunsolo is adamant that the feeling of ecological grief can also be a force for good.

“People use grief to come together, to support each other and to protest,” she said. “It becomes this really resistant form of mourning where you take it public and it mobilizes you.

“Grief can actually be a very motivating force.”


This article originally appeared on thenarwhal.ca and was written by Sharon J Riley

What Happens in the Brain When We Feel Fear?

And why some of us just can’t get enough of it?

Fear may be as old as life on Earth. It is a fundamental, deeply wired reaction, evolved over the history of biology, to protect organisms against perceived threat to their integrity or existence. Fear may be as simple as a cringe of an antenna in a snail that is touched, or as complex as existential anxiety in a human.

Whether we love or hate to experience fear, it’s hard to deny that we certainly revere it – devoting an entire holiday to the celebration of fear.

Thinking about the circuitry of the brain and human psychology, some of the main chemicals that contribute to the “fight or flight” response are also involved in other positive emotional states, such as happiness and excitement. So, it makes sense that the high arousal state we experience during a scare may also be experienced in a more positive light. But what makes the difference between getting a “rush” and feeling completely terrorized?

We are psychiatrists who treat fear and study its neurobiology. Our studies and clinical interactions, as well as those of others, suggest that a major factor in how we experience fear has to do with the context. When our “thinking” brain gives feedback to our “emotional” brain and we perceive ourselves as being in a safe space, we can then quickly shift the way we experience that high arousal state, going from one of fear to one of enjoyment or excitement.

When you enter a haunted house during Halloween season, for example, anticipating a ghoul jumping out at you and knowing it isn’t really a threat, you are able to quickly relabel the experience. In contrast, if you were walking in a dark alley at night and a stranger began chasing you, both your emotional and thinking areas of the brain would be in agreement that the situation is dangerous, and it’s time to flee!

But how does your brain do this?


Fear reaction starts in the brain and spreads through the body to make adjustments for the best defense, or flight reaction. The fear response starts in a region of the brain called the amygdala. This almond-shaped set of nuclei in the temporal lobe of the brain is dedicated to detecting the emotional salience of the stimuli – how much something stands out to us.

For example, the amygdala activates whenever we see a human face with an emotion. This reaction is more pronounced with anger and fear. A threat stimulus, such as the sight of a predator, triggers a fear response in the amygdala, which activates areas involved in preparation for motor functions involved in fight or flight. It also triggers release of stress hormones and sympathetic nervous system.

This leads to bodily changes that prepare us to be more efficient in a danger: The brain becomes hyperalert, pupils dilate, the bronchi dilate and breathing accelerates. Heart rate and blood pressure rise. Blood flow and stream of glucose to the skeletal muscles increase. Organs not vital in survival such as the gastrointestinal system slow down.

A part of the brain called the hippocampus is closely connected with the amygdala. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex help the brain interpret the perceived threat. They are involved in a higher-level processing of context, which helps a person know whether a perceived threat is real.

For instance, seeing a lion in the wild can trigger a strong fear reaction, but the response to a view of the same lion at a zoo is more of curiosity and thinking that the lion is cute. This is because the hippocampus and the frontal cortex process contextual information, and inhibitory pathways dampen the amygdala fear response and its downstream results. Basically, our “thinking” circuitry of brain reassures our “emotional” areas that we are, in fact, OK.


Being attacked by a dog or seeing someone else attacked by a dog triggers fear. (Jaromir Chalabala/Shutterstock.com)

Similar to other animals, we very often learn fear through personal experiences, such as being attacked by an aggressive dog, or observing other humans being attacked by an aggressive dog.

However, an evolutionarily unique and fascinating way of learning in humans is through instruction – we learn from the spoken words or written notes! If a sign says the dog is dangerous, proximity to the dog will trigger a fear response.

We learn safety in a similar fashion: experiencing a domesticated dog, observing other people safely interact with that dog or reading a sign that the dog is friendly.


Fear creates distraction, which can be a positive experience. When something scary happens, in that moment, we are on high alert and not preoccupied with other things that might be on our mind (getting in trouble at work, worrying about a big test the next day), which brings us to the here and now.

Furthermore, when we experience these frightening things with the people in our lives, we often find that emotions can be contagious in a positive way. We are social creatures, able to learn from one another. So, when you look over to your friend at the haunted house and she’s quickly gone from screaming to laughing, socially you’re able to pick up on her emotional state, which can positively influence your own.

While each of these factors - context, distraction, social learning - have potential to influence the way we experience fear, a common theme that connects all of them is our sense of control. When we are able to recognize what is and isn’t a real threat, relabel an experience and enjoy the thrill of that moment, we are ultimately at a place where we feel in control. That perception of control is vital to how we experience and respond to fear. When we overcome the initial “fight or flight” rush, we are often left feeling satisfied, reassured of our safety and more confident in our ability to confront the things that initially scared us.

It is important to keep in mind that everyone is different, with a unique sense of what we find scary or enjoyable. This raises yet another question: While many can enjoy a good fright, why might others downright hate it?


Any imbalance between excitement caused by fear in the animal brain and the sense of control in the contextual human brain may cause too much, or not enough, excitement. If the individual perceives the experience as “too real,” an extreme fear response can overcome the sense of control over the situation.

This may happen even in those who do love scary experiences: They may enjoy Freddy Krueger movies but be too terrified by “The Exorcist,” as it feels too real, and fear response is not modulated by the cortical brain.

On the other hand, if the experience is not triggering enough to the emotional brain, or if is too unreal to the thinking cognitive brain, the experience can end up feeling boring. A biologist who cannot tune down her cognitive brain from analyzing all the bodily things that are realistically impossible in a zombie movie may not be able to enjoy “The Walking Dead” as much as another person.

So if the emotional brain is too terrified and the cognitive brain helpless, or if the emotional brain is bored and the cognitive brain is too suppressing, scary movies and experiences may not be as fun.


All fun aside, abnormal levels of fear and anxiety can lead to significant distress and dysfunction and limit a person’s ability for success and joy of life. Nearly one in four people experiences a form of anxiety disorder during their lives, and nearly 8 percent experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Disorders of anxiety and fear include phobias, social phobia, generalized anxiety disorder, separation anxiety, PTSD and obsessive compulsive disorder. These conditions usually begin at a young age, and without appropriate treatment can become chronic and debilitating and affect a person’s life trajectory. The good news is that we have effective treatments that work in a relatively short time period, in the form of psychotherapy and medications.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.

image: https://counter.theconversation.com/content/85885/count.gif

Arash Javanbakht, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University

Linda Saab, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry, Wayne State University

Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-happens-brain-feel-fear-180966992/#EWEYT3vFG19mf7P4.99

Why The Foot Pain Is Connected To The Neck Pain: Your Movement Patterns Shape Your Body

In the yoga world, if we get pain somewhere in the body, we take it as a call to action and begin to stretch that particular area. This approach is often ineffective, because in the words of prominent physiotherapist Diane Lee “It’s the victims who cry out, not the criminals.” This statement requires a fundamental shift in perspective – just because something is hurting doesn’t mean that it is the source of the problem. Now why is that? Why does the old pain in your right foot eventually shows up as tension in the neck? This happens because of fascia.

Fascia is that cotton candy-like connective tissue, that for hundreds of years had been carefully scraped off by anatomists to expose muscles and bones, and considered irrelevant. In the last couple of decades, however, fascia has been reclaiming it’s role as a vital whole-body communication network.

So what is fascia and why should we, yoga teachers and practitioners, care about it? Fascia is the connective tissue that serves both as a bag that holds muscles , bones, organs, etc, and the packing material in between those structures. It is comprised mostly of collagen fibers. For example, when you look at an individual muscle, you will see that fascia wraps individual muscle fibers, groups of fibers and muscle as a whole, becoming more dense toward the end and forming a tendon, which then seamlessly blends into the fascia that envelops the bone.


“Without it’s [fascia’s] support, the brain would be runny custard, the liver would spread through the abdominal cavity, and we would end up as a puddle at our own feet.” (1)

So the fascial system is an all-pervading physiological network, as important as the circulatory and nervous systems. It is a vast and truly fascinating subject, if you are interested in how the body works. Here we will focus on two qualities of fascia – its continuity and its ability to transmit tension.

As yoga teachers we always concern ourselves with the idea of connection (hence the definition of yoga as “union” or “linking”), yet we often fall into the mechanistic view of the body as a system of levers and pulleys. We tell students that “this pose stretches this muscle”, as if anything in the body works in isolation. In the world of fascia the muscle is linked to the bone, which is linked to the ligament, which is linked to another bone, and then a tendon and another muscle, etc. It’s perfectly fine to study muscle action, characteristics of ligaments, etc. as long as we remember that they are all part of an interconnected fabric within the body and affect each other constantly.

Beyond linking everything to everything, fascia has an important role of communicating mechanical information by the interplay of pulls and pushes. Just like a snag on a sweater can run across the fabric, the tension is transmitted in the same way from one place in the body to another via a fascial net. A human body is a constant interplay of internal and external forces that need to be balanced and distributed. As a result, there are predictable patterns of tension throughout the body that are necessary to keep us upright and allow a wide range of movement. “Strain, tension (good and bad), trauma, and movement tend to be passed though the structure along these fascial lines of transmission.”(1)

To describe those predictable lines of tension, Thomas Myers had adopted the term myofascial meridians (not to be confused with acupuncture meridians – a bit different). A myofascial meridian basically describes a line of tension that runs through a sheet of fascia that connects and envelops several muscles. I can’t help but think of a silly cartoon from my childhood of a cat and a dog pulling on a sausage link.

It is kind of like that. The casing of the sausage link is like fascia, while muscles form the contents. When it’s pulled in the opposite directions, the tension is created that is transmitted throughout the entire length.

Let’s take a look at two “cardinal “ myofascial meridians: Superficial front line and Superficial back line. Just by looking at them it is obvious that SBL and SFL need to balance each other to support the upright position. If the SBL becomes too tight and shortens, you will end up with a “military” posture with some or all posterior (back) muscles shortened and bunched, and the anterior (front) muscles pulled and strained. Or the reverse can be true as well in a “collapsed” posture with a rounded thoracic spine and flattened lumbar curve. The military posture might come with tight hamstrings, but if you only focus on stretching the hamstrings, you won’t resolve the issue. This is where we need to look at the body wholistically (as a whole) and identify the patterns of tension that run throughout


Some patterns of tension are predictable because of body’s organization; others are unique because of the movement patterns, past injuries, etc. Basically, your body responds to the loads that you put on it. For example, one of my former students who spent 30 years driving a folklift in this position, developed his own unique pattern of tension that spiraled around his body and manifested as severe hip and sacrum pain. Just working on his hips wouldn’t be enough, since his hips were the “victims” of this entire unfortunate movement pattern.

In words of Brooke Thomas, “We become the shapes and movements that we make most of the time.”(2) And those patterns do not go away when we go to a yoga class. If a student of mine is used to hiking her right hip up while walking, she will do the same thing while attempting the tree pose. This is where awareness comes in. If we do our yoga practice on autopilot, we reinforce the patterns that we already have. If we pay close attention to what we are doing, we have a chance to overcome those habitual movement patterns. This is one of the reasons we repeat each pose a few times before we hold it – it gives us an opportunity to examine our movement patterns and correct them if necessary (read more about it).


1. Thomas W. Myers Anatomy Trains: Myofascial Meridians for Manual and Movement Therapists   – In-depth exploration of fascia and myofascial meridians with extensive list of references.

2. Brook Thomas Why fascia matters  – Free, down-to-earth, fun look at fascia and why it matters.


This aeticle originally appeared on sequencewiz.org and was written by Olga Kabel

Why Does Your Body Twitch As You're Falling Asleep?

If you’ve ever found yourself drifting off to sleep only to be woken by a vigorous, full-body twitch or jerk, then do not feel alarmed. You’re among the estimated 60 - 70 % of Americans who regularly experience a phenomenon known as a hypnic jerk—also known as a hypnagogic jerk, or sleep start—which strikes as a person falls into a deep sleep. Here’s what to know about it.

What do sleep jerks feel like?

Hypnic jerks—involuntary twitches or jolts which occur during the night—can affect people in different ways. Many people will sleep right through them, but for others, they are vigorous enough to wake them up.

Although there is no definite explanation for what causes hypnic jerks, people are more likely to suffer from them when they’re sleep deprived or anxious, or when they do sleep-impairing habits before going to bed, like drinking caffeine or doing exercise close to bedtime, says James Wilson, a U.K.-based sleep behavior and sleep environment expert. “For people who suffer from hypnic jerks, it’s awful,” he adds. “They worry about it before they go to bed, which makes it worse.”

Jacqui Paterson, who is 44 and lives in the U.K., says she has experienced these kinds of twitches on an almost-nightly basis for about three years.

“When I was about 41, I started getting insomnia, which I’d never had in my life before,” she says. “Initially, I was staying awake all night, but I now get these annoying jerks which wake me up exactly an hour after I fall asleep, like someone has set an alarm in my head. I seem to have replaced one evil with another.”

Paterson says the jerks come more regularly when she feels concerned or preoccupied. If she worries about them happening before she goes to bed, then it “almost guarantees” that she will suffer from them that night.

The jerks feel like a jolt or an electric shock, Paterson says. “I’ve heard people talk about getting a falling sensation when they drop off to sleep,” she says. “To me, the feeling is like that but on steroids. It’s like someone has come and slapped me. It’s a really shocking feeling, like jumping into freezing cold water. I always wake up feeling totally alert.”

What causes hypnic jerks?

Put simply, hypnic jerks are caused when one part of the brain tries to go to sleep more quickly than other parts of the brain.

“The complexity of going to sleep and waking up is incredible, and sometimes—particularly when we are sleep deprived—our brain doesn’t shut down normally, which means we get this sort of jerking movement when we’re in a light sleep,” says Wilson. Often, he adds, the brain tries to make sense of it, “which is when we imagine ourselves falling off the sidewalk, a cliff or in a hole.”

The reason why some people experience the twitches at such a predictable time is due to their circadian rhythm, or body clock, Wilson says. “Normally when we go to sleep, about half an hour later we go into a deep stage of sleep during which we wouldn’t get these hypnic jerks,” he says. “If someone is sleep deprived, as they go through the process of falling asleep, the brain will get stuck at the same point in time. Usually if we can help people address their sleep deprivation, the instances decrease or disappear altogether.”

How can you prevent sleep jerks from happening?

There are ways to limit the effects, particularly by making a conscious effort to sleep better. “Try and get in a good routine around sleep,” Wilson says. “Wake up at the same time every day, and wind down properly before going to bed, making sure the activities you do in the hour before going to sleep are relaxing to you. Like most issues surrounding sleep, preventing hypnic jerks is all about trying to solve that sleep deprivation.”

Wilson also suggests that if a person suffers from them at the same time every night, they could ask a housemate or family member to disturb their sleep about five minutes before the jerks tend to occur, either by encouraging them to turn over in bed or rustling something near them. Often, that will help stop the twitches from happening, he says.


This article originally appeared on time.com and was written by Kate Samuelson