MEMBER WELLBEING: Identifying & Managing Trauma from the bushfires

We have all been shocked by the feroc­i­ty of the bush­fires which are rav­aging our land­scape, threat­ing and tak­ing lives and homes.  Tales and images of dis­tressed peo­ple and ani­mals have dom­i­nat­ed all forms of media and are part of our dai­ly con­ver­sa­tions.  Expres­sions of despair and dis­may and help­less­ness are now part of our dai­ly rhetoric and there is no sign of relief.  Whilst the major­i­ty of fires are in the East­ern States, media reports bring them into our lives on a minute by minute basis mak­ing the threat seem very real, no mat­ter where you are.  It is nor­mal for us to find this dis­tress­ing.  How­ev­er, for some peo­ple, espe­cial­ly young peo­ple or peo­ple who may have per­son­al­ly expe­ri­enced trau­ma of a sim­i­lar nature or who may already be of an anx­ious nature, the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion may be more dis­tress­ing, and feel­ings of threat may be height­ened.

When we feel threat­ened, we tend to revert to behav­iours con­trolled by our prim­i­tive brain which is respon­si­ble for sur­vival.  You may have heard of the fight, flight or freeze response where­by when threat­ened the per­son either fights the threat, runs from the threat (flight) or freezes.  All are valid respons­es to threat and depend­ing on the sit­u­a­tion, the brain acts to secure sur­vival.  How­ev­er, you do not actu­al­ly have to expe­ri­ence the threat face to face to react in this man­ner and for you to expe­ri­ence trau­ma from the threat.

Trau­ma is the phys­i­cal and or psy­cho­log­i­cal reac­tion which comes from threat and can occur from one inci­dent or from mul­ti­ple inci­dence.  Trau­ma can be very dis­tress­ing and life chang­ing for both the per­son expe­ri­enc­ing the trau­ma and for those around them.  Expe­ri­enc­ing dis­tress from an event which we have not direct­ly expe­ri­enced is called vic­ar­i­ous trau­ma.  Vic­ar­i­ous trau­ma can present in the same way as oth­er trau­mas from sit­u­a­tions where we have been threat­ened.  Reac­tions to all types of trau­ma can be phys­i­cal or emo­tion­al and gen­er­al­ly indi­cate that some­one is strug­gling to process what they are see­ing, hear­ing or read­ing.  Signs and symp­toms that some­one has expe­ri­enced trau­ma and is not cop­ing can include height­ened anx­i­ety, prob­lems with sleep, being teary, with­draw­ing from nor­mal­ly plea­sur­able activ­i­ties, hyper-vig­i­lance, changes in eat­ing habits, reliance on alco­hol or drugs to cope, feel­ings or numb­ness or feel­ings of rage.  Symp­toms can arise in the months after the trau­mat­ic event and dif­fer­ent peo­ple will respond dif­fer­ent­ly to trau­ma.  We know that trau­ma leaves an imprint on the brain and changes our response to future trau­ma.  Remem­ber where you were when the ter­ror­ist attack occurred on the twin tow­ers, how much did this change your behav­ior towards trav­el­ling or low fly­ing air­craft?

So, what can you do if you or some­one you know appears to be suf­fer­ing from trau­ma?  First­ly, pre­ven­tion is the best cure.  Lim­it the num­ber of images and sto­ries peo­ple are exposed to, espe­cial­ly young peo­ple.  If you think some­one is strug­gling, talk to them.  Allow them to express their emo­tions or fears and nor­malise them rather than dis­miss­ing them with state­ments like ‘yes, this is very upset­ting, and it would be nor­mal for you to be sad or upset by what you have seen’.  Remem­ber that trau­ma aris­es from a threat, real or per­ceived to safe­ty so pro­vide reas­sur­ance to the per­son that they are safe, par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant with chil­dren.  Con­tex­tu­alise the trau­ma to the events, ie express that we are very for­tu­nate in WA that we are not under threat.  Change feel­ings of hope­less­ness to ones of action by doing some­thing to help those affect­ed.  Pay extra atten­tion to make sure you are doing stress free activ­i­ties such as play­ing games, spend­ing time with pets, going out­doors, doing things which remove the stress chem­i­cals from your body, yoga, laugh­ing, swim­ming etc.  Most of all, if the symp­toms do not go away, seek the help of a pro­fes­sion­al such as your GP or a men­tal health pro­fes­sion­al.

Pam Bubrzy­c­ki

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