If you’ve been experiencing feelings of claustrophobia, irritability or lack of concentration recently, one registered psychologist says the smoke from wildfires that has blanketed Alberta for the past several days may be playing a role.
Much of Alberta has been socked in by wildfire smoke for days, with a special air quality statement still in place for nearly the entire province Monday.
Not only can the smoky air affect people’s physical health, it can affect their mental health as well, especially when it sticks around for prolonged periods of time.
Registered psychologist Dr. Brent Macdonald said it’s not uncommon for people to start experiencing feelings of anxiety.
“In terms of mental health, what we start to see is a lot of almost claustrophobia-like symptoms.
“So people start to feel anxious because we feel very compressed. Usually heat is associated… so there’s that feeling that we have a combination of heat, we have a combination of breathing, both of which have an impact on our sleep, on our general health, all of which has an impact on our mental health,” he said Monday.
“As a result, what happens is we start to feel very constrained and psychologically that makes us feel very tight, very constrained.”
Not being able to take in a full deep breath, due to particulate matter in the air, can also take its toll, according to Macdonald.
“What happens there is we start to experience almost an anxiety-like reaction, so it’s almost like a panic,” he explained.
“We start taking these shallow breaths, frequent shallow breaths, and those aren’t really good for getting a lot of oxygen into our brain and that’s where we need a lot of our oxygen because that’s where all of our reasoning is and all of our concentration is.
“Some of the things that we start to see in terms of symptoms are things like problems with concentration, irritability, short-fused or short-temperedness, problems with memory. And all of those, we become aware of and that just makes it worse. We’re aware that we’re irritable so we become even more irritable. We know that we’re having a tough time concentrating so we get frustrated because we can’t concentrate.
“Over a period of a few days, we start to see significant deterioration.”
Very high air quality health index values are being experienced through much of Alberta and are expected to remain high through mid-week in the central and northern regions, according to Environment Canada.
In Edmonton, the air quality is expected to hit 9 on Monday, a high risk.
Calgary is also expected to reach 9 on the air quality health index.
Areas such as Cold Lake, Fort McMurray, Fort McKay and and Wood Buffalo region are expected to reach 10+ on Monday, a very high risk.
Environment Canada says air quality can fluctuate over short distances and vary hour by hour.
With poor air quality expected through mid-week, Macdonald recommends staying indoors as much as possible and sleeping whenever you can.
“Sleep is really, really important,” he said. “Getting sleep whenever — it doesn’t matter if it’s a nap in the middle of the afternoon or if you go to bed a bit earlier than usual.”
Macdonald said it’s also important for people to know they’re not alone and “we’re all in this together.”
“This is not just a you issue — the fact that you might be feeling a bit more irritable or having problems with concentration or memory,” he said.
“That’s not just you. That’s pretty much all of us right now.
“This is a temporary thing.”
People may also experience physical symptoms such as increased coughing, throat irritation, headaches or shortness of breath. Children, seniors and those with cardiovascular or lung disease are especially at risk.
The risk can be reduced by closing windows and doors, as well as minimizing outdoor activity.
More information on reducing your risk can be found on the Alberta Health Services website.
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