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TRAUMA | 20 MAR 2020

Bushfire and Trauma

The summer of 2019/20 will forever be etched in the minds of many Australians. We’ve experienced bushfires before, yet the duration and destruction of this summer’s bushfires could never have been fathomed.

I remember spending Boxing Day evening with my family as we contemplated whether or not to head down to our annual South Coast holiday destination given the bushfire crisis. As we sat contemplating an email notification dinged. It was our caravan park writing to let everyone know that they were safe and sheltered from the fires and encouraging us to come on down and enjoy bringing in the new year on the South Coast. In that moment we felt reassured and started packing the cars for the early morning departure.

The first two days of our holiday were great, spending time with our family, enjoying nature, the surf and no specific routine. Then the evening of December 30th arrived, the sky until now had been a dull grey colour, the sun locked out by the thick smoke haze, which at times had been hard to decipher between cloud and smoke. All of a sudden it was a bright red in the distance and the smoke took on a much more eerie form. There was an uneasy feeling in my stomach. The following morning, New Years Eve, started off with the first blue sky that we had the pleasure of enjoying. Quickly, the heat from the sun became more intense than I can ever remember experiencing. And even faster, just after lunch time, it was as if someone turned it down by at least 20 degrees. In just a split second, the wind escalated in intensity. People had to stay by their campsites holding their temporary homes to prevent them from blowing away. The blue sky was long gone, replaced by even thicker smoke and an eerie darkness.

Suddenly there was no power, no water, no diesel, no communication signal. The feeling of isolation sunk in. The roads were closed in every direction, there was no way out, no way to let our loved ones know that we were ok, no way to find out if the flames were heading our way. There was panic throughout the park.

And yet, we were the lucky ones, the fire did not reach us. Eventually, we made it home safely, after having been told we can’t leave, to being evacuated, to spending the night in the car after the roads closed again.

And now as we head into Autumn, the flames are out and still, for many people, daily reminders trigger a fear response that, while helpful at one stage, now gets in the way of recovery.

‘Communities and individuals affected by bushfire can experience a range of thoughts, feelings and behaviours that can be intense, confusing and frightening.’

This is a normal response to something that has threatened our wellbeing. Our fear response, otherwise known as the fight, flight or freeze response, activates our nervous system so that we are ready to do what we need to do to protect ourselves, our families and those around us.

Usually, this response resolves itself following the fearful situation, as we return to our usual lives, however for some, fear reactions continue long after the event.

These reactions may 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
  • sleep disturbances
  • 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.

These reactions are worst in the first week following the event. If you or someone you know is still experiencing some of these reactions or if your day to day functioning is continuing to be affected then see your GP or contact us here at Shoalhaven Psychology where we can support you to understand your reactions and develop skills to manage them in a helpful way.

Reference:

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

Emma Lightfoot

Psychologist 

 

 

 

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