In late 2019 and early 2020, Australia’s bushfire season started early, and burned hundreds of thousands of hectares, resulting in the loss of homes and lives.

For those involved (e.g. residents and emergency service workers), there are a range of conflicting and challenging emotions. It is worth remembering, though, that it is common to feel fear, confusion, and many other intense emotions after extraordinary experiences such as the Australian bushfires.  

While many people can work to begin rebuilding their lives and property, and work through the thoughts and feelings generated by this event, it is also common for some people to take longer to recover from the experience of living through bushfires.

Professor Sandy McFarlane, director of the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies, says that people who have experienced bushfire-related trauma will not necessarily develop mental health disorders. (1)

It’s natural for everybody to experience fear, anxiety and distress during and after these events, but that’s very different from the enduring disruption that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) represents in somebody’s life.

Professor Sandy McFarlane, director of the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies

Other reactions include:

  • feeling overwhelmed
  • feeling numb and detached
  • inability to focus
  • inability to plan ahead
  • constant tearfulness
  • intrusive memories or bad dreams related to the bushfires
  • constant questioning – “What if I had done x, y or z, instead?”
  • ‘replaying’ the event and inventing different outcomes in order to be prepared should it happen again.

If your day-to-day functioning is seriously affected for more than one month after the event, it’s important to discuss how you feel with a GP or mental health professional (2).

Signs that you may need more support

So what are some of the signs that you (or a loved one) may need extra support?

  • Disruptive memories: Thoughts about the incident are constant, intrusive and distressing.
  • Avoidance: You are avoiding certain situations so much that it affects your daily life. These can be situations that may trigger memories of the bushfire, avoiding socialising, refusing to read or talk about the bushfire.
  • Ongoing anxiety: Constantly feeling on edge, having difficulty concentrating and / or sleeping, taking a long time to calm down, increased heart rate, nausea, ongoing intense anger and emotional distress.
  • Change in belief: Decreased trust in people, not feeling safe, blaming yourself and / or others.
  • Realising that your emotional and/or physical reactions are not normal
  • Thoughts of self-harm or of suicide
  • Loss of hope / interest in the future
  • Overwhelming fear

It’s worth listening to the opinions of friends and family if they tell you that they notice some of the signs and symptoms above. If they are expressing concern for you, then speak to your GP or other mental health professional.

Methods of helping yourself and others deal with the emotional impact of a bushfire

What these events [bushfires] can tend to do is become imprinted on people’s minds in terms of the horror, the sense of threat and not being in control.

If those memories keep coming back to you, try to focus instead on the moment you knew you were safe. That allows you some respite from the awfulness of what you’ve been through (1).

Professor Sandy McFarlane, director of the University of Adelaide’s Centre for Traumatic Stress Studies
  • Focus on the moment you knew you were safe
  • Spend time with people who care about you, and talk about your experiences when you feel ready. On the other hand, let your friends and family know when you need time on your own.
  • Inform yourself about the impact of traumatic events and what to expect (but remember that you may only experience some of the symptoms)
  • Stick to a routine that suits you
  • Include activities that you enjoy and help you relax, or even practice relaxation (e.g. progressive muscle relaxation).
  • Realise that recovery is a journey and not a sprint – be patient with yourself. It’s natural to experience such reactions as fear, anxiety, distress after distressing events.
  • Reward small progress steps – as well as big steps – and do not expect to progress constantly. There may be times when you do not feel that you are making any progress.
  • Remember that there is no right or wrong way to feel. Resilience is the norm, but it can take a while to bounce back.
  • Remind yourself that you can and you are managing. Things will get better.
  • Allow yourself to gradually confront what has happened when you are ready, as this can assist in coming to terms with a traumatic experience.
  • You may feel tired, so rest if this is the case. Exercise can also be useful if you feel able to do this.
  • Avoid overuse of alcohol, caffeine, smoking or other drugs to cope.
  • Avoid making any major decisions or big life changes.
  • If your recent experience stirs up other memories or feelings from a past unrelated stressful occurrence, or even childhood trauma, try not to let the memories all blur together. Keep the experiences separate and deal with them separately.
  • If you catch yourself thinking in an unhelpful negative way, find an alternative (realistic) helpful thought. For instance, if you find yourself thinking “I’ll never get things sorted out”, this could be replaced with “This is hard work and will take a while, but I’ve started – just keep chipping away“.
  • Children are usually very resilient and most children will find that emotional effects will reduce over time if they receive support (e.g. from families). After a traumatic event, children need comfort, reassurance and support, and to know that they are safe and are being looked after. The factsheet by the Australian Psychological Society offers examples of how children may be affected by the bushfire, and ideas of how parents and caregivers can help them (3).

If you need urgent help

https://www.beyondblue.org.au/get-support/national-help-lines-and-websites

References

(1) https://www.abc.net.au/life/mental-health-and-trauma-care-after-australian-bushfire/11863202

(2) https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/bushfires-and-mental-health/

(3) https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-topics/Disasters/Bushfires/Recovering-from-bushfires/Guidelines-children-after-bushfires

(4) https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-topics/Disasters/Bushfires/Recovering-from-bushfires

(5) https://www.psychology.org.au/for-the-public/Psychology-topics/Disasters/Bushfires/Recovering-from-bushfires/Useful-skills-disaster-recovery-problem-solving

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