The Bushfire Crisis: How to Cope Mentally
The Australian Bushfire Crisis: Coping Strategies © 7th January 2020 Phoebe Hutchison
Having just had the most stressful week of my life from two evacuations and all the associated fears, and as I am an East Gippsland trauma counsellor, I am passionate about helping anyone else impacted by these fires, with this article.
To feel better during and after the bushfire crisis, it will help you to know:
- What you are feeling is normal.
- What’s happening in your body, brain and nervous system.
- How you can help yourself feel a little more normal.
You may be experiencing:
Trauma: You may have trauma from having felt helpless and hopeless, from fear that you, your: family, friends, home, workplace, or community, were not going to survive.
Vicarious Trauma: You may have vicarious trauma, which is normally a trauma reserved for people in the police force, army, ambulance, fire brigade, counsellors, etc. An accumulation of hearing about, and seeing, numerous accounts of devastation, pain, and loss can lead to feelings of hopelessness, burnout, anxiety, depression, and if prolonged, without professional help, can cause suicidal thoughts.
Excessive Fear: To keep us safe, authorities continually give us the worst case scenario. If you have anxiety, depression, PTSD, or a tendency to catastrophize or have black and white thinking, this cautious approach will likely put you in panic mode.
Grief: You could be struggling with grief, after losing your: home, cars, sheds, possessions, loved ones, friends, freedom, livelihood or peace. If you have suffered grief and loss in the past, which is suppressed (has not been worked through, and still triggers you), then the current grief will feel much worse. If you have suffered these losses, and others didn’t, you could be feeling angry and like a victim (naturally)… as well as experiencing severe trauma reactions and shock. You may need medical and psychological help.
Survivor Guilt: You may be suffering with survivor guilt, after feeling happy that your home has survived, yet someone in your suburb, friendship group, or community, has lost everything. Guilt is a white flag. It is ONLY there for us to notice. Guilt will destroy us, if we let it. Helping others will help reduce your guilt, although some people may need to avoid all fire related activities, to cope.
Emotional Overwhelm: You may feel lost, confused, stressed, indecisive, unable to think straight, or numb. You may cry easily, over-react to simple things, and feel as though you cannot cope with much. Your system is overworked, as you are likely to have fatigue, sleep deprivation, and yet, you need to stay alert for more danger.
You have been through an incredible trauma, and devastation similar to war. The threat was real, people were terrified for their lives, we fled or we fought (often without training). This fire crisis impacted thousands of people, animals, the planet, air quality, and in addition to this, precious lives, homes and businesses were lost…
I got angry when someone from Melbourne said to me yesterday, ‘You didn’t lose anything…You are ok’. This may be true, and I am eternally grateful, but are we all ok mentally? Is the war veteran ok after war? No!
I have worked with many trauma victims who have suffered for years, and some have been ‘one incident traumas’. Recovery will be so much faster, if the appropriate mental health assistance is sough. Maybe not today, but if you are still highly impacted in a month or two, please seek help.
Reflect and Let Emotions Flow: So many people want to dismiss this, forget about this nightmare, and get back to life as normal. However, it is important to acknowledge the enormity of what has just happened, and in doing so, process some of the emotions around this experience. It will help if you talk to others about how you were feeling, what you experienced, what your fears were, and by simply keeping the conversations going, you’ll be able to start to comprehend some of the events that have happened in the last week. You may wish to record into your phone some of the experiences, so you can review them later. You may wish to use a diary to write down how you felt, what you have seen, feared, and lost.
Why do you still feel anxious? When you are in a life and death situation, your brain changes. The part that is normally in charge of your day to day thoughts (the prefrontal cortex, behind your forehead) works on logic / morals. However, when your brain determines your life or your loved ones, is under threat, the limbic system (the primal, survival part of your brain) takes over. Your brain changes the controlling part, to save your life. This can go on for years after a trauma, if specialist ‘trauma counselling’ is not sought.
Your Brain has Changed: The limbic system takes over, releasing adrenaline from the amygdala, which goes through your body and equips you with the continual energy to be able to fight,flight, or freeze. You are likely to experience an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone. The combination of these, make it difficult to sleep, increase aggression, and because your brain has determined that you are in survival mode, your nervous system is hijacked.
Your Nervous System has been hijacked: Your autonomic nervous system, which has two sides: sympathetic (puts your body in high alert) and parasympathetic (calms your body, returning it to normal). You are likely to be running from sympathetic a lot more, making your blood flow continually to your main organs, preparing you for fight, flight, or freeze, and away from other parts of your body. This leaves your hands and body a little colder, and your thoughts become acutely focused on ‘potential threats’. You may become obsessed with fire information, which is normal at the start of any crisis.
You may feel Numb: As your nervous system is preparing you for action, digestive systems don’t function well, often leaving you with diarrhoea, stomach pains, etc. As you are still under threat, you may experience some of the ‘freeze’ responses, and due to trauma and shock. You may experience feelings of numbness to your surroundings, feel as though this can’t be real, or you may feel cocooned in your own mind, and distant from people who are not going through this trauma.
You may become hypervigilant: As your body is on high alert, you’ll become hypervigilant, which means simple things like wind (away from the fires), may be terrifying. You may not feel safe, even though in these situations, you normally would. You may feel easily startled, panicked, and find yourself restless, pacing, and unable to feel fully relaxed..
Why do some people cope better than others? There are some people who will find this experience terrifying, and some people who will cope extremely well. Those who have anxiety, depression, PTSD, or who have a history of being in a fire, are likely to be impacted more. Those who have been in a situation where they experienced extreme helplessness and hopelessness in the past, will also not cope very well under these conditions. Why? There is an area in the brain called the subcortical, and it registers emotions without words. When we go through a trauma that we have experienced before, our brain triggers into high alert / survival mode, in a greater intensity. This can make some people appear to over-react.
(I know I over-reacted this week, as I was stuck in a house fire at 14 years of age, and this whole experience re-triggered me… I have now had some Brainspotting, and feel much calmer).
Don’t wait two years to get counselling: Some people will try to move on, and suppress their varied emotions, and this torment can remain deep in their subcortical brain (where emotions are held)…and this could remain there for years. I’ve seen clients experience a life threatening trauma, and then seemingly freeze, and be unable to work, for years…until they had the psychological help For anyone suffering severe trauma, I strongly recommend that you consult a ‘Trauma Trained Therapist’, such as one trained in: Brainspotting, EMDR or Somatic techniques, as these therapies work directly with the subcortical brain, so the emotions that are not processed, that keep the brain/nervous systems on high alert, can be released…causing the body/mind to feel calm again. Brainspotting Therapist’s: https://www.brainspottingaustraliapacific.com.au/category/australia/vic/
You have suffered greatly, and you deserve help. The world has been watching Australia in crisis, and there are countless counsellors wanting to help you. To access a counsellor, see your doctor, community health, speak to your employer about free counselling called EAP (Employee Assist Program), and if you are unemployed, ask your local job agency to recommend a free counsellor. LifeLine is available anytime 24/7, if you need to speak to someone: Phone: 13 11 14.
We need to rebuild Australia, one person and community, at a time.
Stay safe and give yourself the opportunity to heal. Life may not seem normal at present, but with time, and great psychological support (if needed), life will feel peaceful, safe, and happy again.
10 x Ways to Help Yourself Navigate The Bushfire Crisis
- Keep connecting with others – in person, if possible.
- Keep up the hugs. The power of touch is so important in trauma.
- Focus on gratitude. Make a list of who and what you are grateful for in your life.
- Focus on how you can help yourself, and then once stronger, help your fellow community.
- Believe in a positive future. Try not to catastrophize or have a lot of black and white thinking.
- Keep telling yourself, ‘I am safe, now’, in order to get through to your subconscious mind. You have 60,000 thoughts per day, and many lately, may have been on the fires. It’s important you allow the positivity to reach your subconscious mind.
- Use distraction, when you feel you are ready. Start talking about other things, watch your favourite TV shows, do the activities you did before. Get things back to normal by reducing the amount of thoughts on the trauma. (Continual thoughts on the trauma, continually watching the news/facebook stories, will keep your nervous system and brain, in high alert, causing more negative physical / emotional reactions. Give yourself a break from the fire crisis. (However, keep your Vic Emergency App running, and watch carefully, especially on high fire danger days).
- When the smoke clears, exercise at least four times per week. This will reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body, increase the endorphins, help your serotonin and dopamine in your brain readjust (to keep you calm/motivated, and reduce chances of anxiety or depression). Exercise will help you feel emotionally resilient, happier, peaceful, and a little more normal, again.
- Use grounding exercises to enable your nervous system to keep moving into parasympathetic (calming) rather than sympathetic (alert). (More on this next article).
- Focus on the love you have for your family, pets, friends, and those that have helped you. Dogs are like counsellors, when we really need help. Their calming influence helps your nervous system regulate better. Having love in your heart will increase oxytocin (the love/hug hormone),which will make you feel more connected to everyone. Connection keeps us strong!