Australian Bushfires – Psychological help for trauma

Emotional First Aid

We humans are extremely resilient and have been able to recuperate from the most horrendous tragedies. Furthermore, through the process of healing, we have the possibility to be transformed by our traumas.

Emotional First Aid gives you information on how to help yourself, your family and friends in response to witnessing, hearing or living through the traumatic events.

When traumatic events happen, they challenge our sense of safety and predictability and this may trigger strong physical and emotional reactions. These reactions are normal.

Dos and Don’ts

  • Try to get the information about your loved ones ASAP, but don’t spend every minute re-dialing. The lines are busy, take breaks from this to engage with activities to help yourself and those around you.
  • Watch the news for a limited time to get the information you need and then turn off the TV or the radio for a while. You can turn the TV on every two hours to get more details, but do not get hooked on the repetitive traumatic images it is showing. These images have the uncanny ability to suck us in and keep us glued to the screen, even if it makes us feel worse after.
    Resist the pull to watch.
  • Don’t be isolated. Organize and meet in community groups, in neighbourhoods, YMCA’s and religious centres. Get together with family and friends and support each other.
    The understanding and support of our loved ones helps us cope with tragedy much faster. It is crucial to validate the feelings of fear and helplessness of others, even if we are coping better than they are. People have different ways of responding to shocking events. There is no right or wrong reaction.
  • Seek professional help if your reaction feels too strong to handle on your own or with your friends. It doesn’t mean you’re crazy or weak, it means you’re human.
  • Keep busy and have as structured a schedule as possible to help you stay grounded. It is crucial to focus on your resources, anything that helps you feel calmer, stronger and more grounded. Refocus on all your support systems, whether people, activities or places.
  • Do things that keep your mind occupied, such as watching a movie, knitting, cooking, playing with children or pets, gardening or being in nature.
  • Write your sensations, feelings and thoughts. It has been shown that writing assists in discharging anxiety and helps to regain control.
  • Get sufficient rest. Our tendency is to run on adrenaline and exhaust our bodies.
  • Encourage yourself and others not to tell their stories in a repetitive way which ultimately deepens the trauma; instead listen to each other’s accounts of this real tragedy/catastrophe, but with interruptions of the story from beginning to end. Stopping the chronological telling of the story will help you to process feelings without overwhelming yourself and help you not get stuck in obsessive thinking.
  • Allow yourself to feel the feelings you are feeling even if they are not pretty. Anger, rage and grief are very natural responses to man-made traumatic events. Feel your feelings and allow your emotions to be expressed in a safe framework – don’t act on your rage when involved in an adrenaline reaction.
  • Don’t blame yourself for negative feelings, but make sure your actions are positive and productive.
  • Stay active and volunteer help in the hospitals or give blood. You can send money or help staff help lines for distressed people. Help traumatized friends and family by listening to them without judgment, by not taking it personally if they are angry or blaming, or by helping with household tasks or babysitting to give them private time.

Psychological Response

People can have many different reactions to the tragedy. We each follow our own path through trauma and grief depending who we are, why we’re traumatised and what resources we have to help us be resilient. Only 5-10% of people develop chronic problems (like Acute Stress Disorder, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Some will be in shock, stunned and dissociated for a while. They may feel disoriented in time, and place, and sometimes in person. They may feel numb and cut off from the terror and pain.

People may feel fear and deep sorrow, uncertainty and helplessness. People may feel confused, not able to think well, concentrate, remember things or problem-solve. They may feel depressed, exhausted, unable to rest and wanting to withdraw. All these feelings are normal in the immediate period after a trauma, and if they don’t last for an extended period of time.

People may feel agitated, anxious, hyper-alert and hyper-vigilant (‘on guard’), easily irritated and unable to control their emotions. They need to engage in activities and creative expression that calms them.

Being with family members, friends or other caring people can help to calm you. Try to stay with other people, even if you don’t want to talk about your experiences. Your brain will generally feel safer if there are other people nearby.

People may feel suspicious and paranoid. They may be feel intense anger and want to engage in antisocial acts. They can become very critical and blame everyone. It is important to talk to friends and get a “reality check” on our perspective and to not engage in any act that we cannot share with people whose perspectives may be different than ours.

Children may become ‘clingy’ and have nightmares. They may have stomach-aches and headaches. Alternatively, they may act out aggressively. This is normal. It might last a few days or more but it will pass. They need to be reassured and made to feel protected. Here’s a guide for parents from Phoenix Australia, a book for children, and another for teens. Kids are pretty amazing at bouncing back when we can help them do so.

Physiological response

It’s natural to have a physical reaction to traumatic stress and it helps to recognize these symptoms as signs of ‘activation’ and not to be scared by them:

These reactions will dissipate or go away if we use the energy and don’t fight them. People might experience some difficulty sleeping, or they might have the urge to overeat or engage in addictive behaviours such as excessive use of alcohol or drugs. Try to avoid hurting your body and brain any more than they’ve been hurt. Reaching for something to numb yourself can help you feel temporarily better, but the next day your brain and body have to cope with the effects of toxins as well as trauma. get professional help if you’re having trouble coping.

The best ‘antidote’ is to try to be aware of those and other impulses, and to be accepting that you are deeply upset and that it will pass.

  • Some people’s previous unresolved traumas may get reactivated. Their sense of safety and trust may get shaken. They need to remind themselves or be reminded of their names, their actual age and today’s date and place. This permits them to get situated in the here and now.
  • People’s symptoms can be very diverse. They can be constant, come and go, or occur in clusters.

Helpful response

We can help our nervous system recuperate its balance by understanding how it discharges when it is over-stimulated. Some examples of this are:

Trembling, shaking, vibrating or sweating
Warmth in our body
Stomach gurgling
Breathing deeply
Crying or laughing
Goose pimples
These are good, it means that we are discharging some of the energy and coming back into balance.

Mostly, we want to just observe what’s happening in our body without judgment, just watching and understanding that our body has the innate ability to regain its balance if we just let it feel what it feels, and give it the time to do what it wants to do.

What to do

It is very important to stay ‘grounded’. If you are feeling disoriented, confused, upset and in disbelief, you can do the following exercise:

  • Sit on a chair, feel your feet on the ground, press on your thighs, feel your behind on the seat, and your back supported by the chair; look around you and pick six objects that are blue or green. Or do the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise below. It takes up brain space to do these exercises, helps your body feel like it’s got a job to do and should help you find a moment of calm to redirect yourself. This should allow you to feel in the present, more grounded and in your body. Notice how your breath gets deeper and calmer.
  • Here is an exercise that will allow you to feel your body as a ‘container’ to hold your feelings.
    – Gently pat different parts of your body with your hand, with a loose wrist. Your body may feel more tingling, more alive, sharp; you may feel more connected to your feelings.
  • Another exercise is to tense your muscles, each group at a time. Hold your shoulders with arms across your chest, tighten your grip on them and pat your arms up and down. Do the same with your legs, tighten them and hold them from the outside, patting through their length. Tighten your back, tighten your front, and then gently release the tension. This may help you or your loved one feel more balanced.
  • Heavy work, sports, aerobics and weight training help avoid depression and are a channel for aggression.

If you believe in prayer or in some sort of greater power, pray for rest for the souls of the dead, for the healing of the wounded, for strength and consolation for the grieving. Pray for peace, understanding and wisdom and for the forces of goodness to prevail.

Do not give up faith in the ultimate goodness of being and keep your trust in humanity.

Adapted from Emotional First Aid – Brief Guide.
Emotional First Aid gives you information on how to help yourself, your family and friends in response to witnessing, hearing or living through the traumatic events.”We have complied the following informative guide. Please feel free to publish or circulate it as you see fit. We believe it could be of great service to you and your public.
Sincerely, Gina Ross – Trauma specialist, founder of the International Trauma Institute and author of the book in progress “The Role of Media in Healing Trauma” and Peter Levine– Author of “Waking The Tiger- Healing Trauma” and creator of Somatic Experiencing, an innovative method for healing trauma”