In the aftermath of the fire season, focus is on recovery and future-proofing for future catastrophes. With all the disasters and traumatic events unfolding around us, you could be forgiven for thinking we are in the middle of some apocalyptic epoch in history.

The Australian Federal government has announced the allocation of $76m for mental health strategies to assist in bushfire recovery, recognising the psychological implications of trauma. Even managing our responses to the never-ending flow of news around traumatic events, along with dire predictions for the future of our planet can impact our resilience.

Learning from Australia’s 2009 bushfires and recent research into reactions to environmental disasters, we can anticipate some mental health challenges ahead. While most of us are able to spontaneously psychologically recover from a traumatic event, one in four people may struggle to regain their resilience and equilibrium. They may benefit from seeking help earlier rather than later to promote their recovery.

This article will help distil some of the available information about understanding that struggle within yourself or those you are close to. It also offers some practical ways to promote recovery.

  1. It is not about forgetting and moving on. Recovery is about processing the event effectively: your mind needs a chance to assimilate your experiences and to file them away in your memories as part of a healthy natural neurological process. Recognise you’ve been through a lot and are dealing with a significant emotional, physical, financial, load. Allow yourself some leeway while also appreciating your strengths.
  2. Do the things that bring peace of mind. Identify those people, activities or environments that offer a moment of quiet to give your brain some downtime. Your resilience depends not just on using your strengths and honouring your vulnerabilities, but also recognising the need to refuel and recharge in order to keep going. Try relaxation or meditation apps that promote structured and soothing breathing, yoga nidra for sleep practices, active centreing practices including yoga or mindfulness exercises[1]. Your local GP could also have other suggestions for you.
  3. Do normal. As far as possible, get back into a normal routine. Structure and purpose are important in keeping us balanced and moving forwards. Maintain a sense of connection with important people in your life, work, social activities, even pets. Take time to ease into your routine and allow yourself to back off a bit to breathe and honour the difficulties around you.
  4. Talk when you can. Talking about your experiences facilitates a neurological process of trauma recovery – it helps your brain understand and file away challenging events so you can return to usual functioning more quickly. Speaking openly and freely with trusted friends, loved ones, or a qualified health professional gives your natural healing processes a chance to do their job.
  5. Forewarned is forearmed. While there is a general flow to post-trauma recovery and growth, your own recovery process is unique. You may need outside assistance to keep yourself on track. Several user-friendly, evidence-based guides for what to expect in terms of your recovery are freely available online[2]. Some are specific to looking after children following disasters or other traumatic events[3]. There are also free, downloadable tip sheets and short worksheets to help you manage issues such as anxiety, sleep problems, and distress[4].

A final note

Vicarious (or secondary) trauma can happen when people are associated with traumatic events but may not have been directly in the front-line, e.g. mental health professionals, jurors, legal practitioners and emergency service personnel, as well as peer support workers or volunteers in community disaster recovery. It can also impact people working in industries focused on climate change and environmental protections.

It can look like compassion fatigue or present as a trauma response[5]. Those close to people working at the front-line may be vulnerable as well because it is triggered by the disruption of our sense of safety, trust, control, and intimacy when we witness the traumatic experiences of others.

Help is available

The pain associated with the human condition is inevitable, but suffering is not. If you’re struggling emotionally, not feeling like your usual self or can’t seem to find your way back, see your GP or mental health professional. They will help you to access support workers trained in addressing emotional reactions following trauma[6]. Sometimes, what you need is a personal “mentor”, such as a psychologist or counsellor, to guide you through scientifically established strategies to help to get you back on track again.

[1] Centre for Clinical Interventions:  Audio Files and Apps

[2] APS: Recovering from Disasters

[3] Phoenix Australia: Trauma Information, Fact Sheets and Booklets; Mental Health Foundation: Post-traumatic stress disorder

[4] Centre for Clinical Interventions: Self Help Resources for Mental Health Problems

[5] 1800RESPECT: Recognising work-induced stress and trauma; Psychology Today: Compassion Fatigue

[6] Find a Psychologist (NZ); Find a Psychologist (Aust)