Support During the Bushfires
As we come to terms with the effects of the bushfires and the larger impact of climate change, it is clear that there is a greater need than ever for the rural and remote health workforce to build and maintain its’ capacity to cope in order to provide essential support to others. CRANAplus Bush Support Services offer reminders below, about ways of building resilience and caring for your own and others’ mental health.
Growth and resilience
The theme that is most obvious in people who have been directly affected by the bushfires is grief that has resulted from the loss of loved ones, home, belongings and income, treasured pets and wildlife and a sense of security and predictability. The way forward is growth and resilience but this takes time and everyone deals with grief in their own way and in their own time.
Perhaps one of the helpful psychological ways to think about recovering from a traumatic event, such as bushfires, is to see it in the light of a developmental process. The trauma challenges people to confront new situations, learn new coping strategies and problem-solving skills. All developmental change is painful and the pain of this sort of trauma for the individual and nation is profound. In surviving such an event, meaning that is made around recognising the skills that were required to cope can lead to real and significant personal growth.
How we breathe reflects our emotional state
Breath is the most precious thing because it represents life. How we breathe reflects our emotional state. When we are feeling peaceful our breathing is slow and steady. During times of stress, however, our breathing tends to become fast and shallow. For some, this type of over-breathing can result in feelings of panic because excessive exhalation depletes carbon dioxide to the point that blood becomes alkaline. If over breathing persists, it may result in full-blown panic attacks accompanied by feelings of fainting, dizziness and even chest pains, headache and collapse.
There are a number of techniques that can be used to take advantage of the link between breath and our emotional state. Mindfulness allows us to be aware of our breath. It gives us an opportunity to reflect on our breathing rate and to slow it down to the point that we are breathing slowly and steadily, increasing our sense of safety and peace. If you feel panic rising, it is possible to counteract the physical effect of shallow breathing by cupping your hand over your mouth and nose, or breathing in and out of a paper bag. Good diet and exercise and sleep hygiene are also important stress management considerations.
If you are noticing that you are feeling panicky it is important to talk with someone about how you are feeling. Managing your worries in the long term and working out strategies to counteract stress and panic will improve your mental health.
Mindfulness as a coping strategy
One of the many reasons that natural disasters are so stressful, even for those who are not directly affected by them, is that they profoundly challenge our belief that the world is safe and predictable. International events, national politics, climate change are increasingly impinging on our sense of safety and well-being. It is more important than ever to find ways of finding psychological and emotional balance.
It is for this reason, that CRANAplus Bush Support Services actively promotes Mindfulness as a coping strategy. Mindfulness grounds you in the present and encourages a much-needed kindness and compassion to both yourself and others in a harsh world.
Mindfulness also encourages curiosity and asking questions. Pursuing a path of seeking knowledge may lead to answers and ultimately action. Mindfulness also reminds us that everything is transient and that this is true of anything negative.
Most importantly, a regular Mindful practice is just that..regular! The discipline and routine of simple grounding techniques provides structure and makes life just that little bit more predictable.
Life challenges and stress
Even when our world is not on fire, life can be challenging and causes stress. All of us play multiple roles, as parents, partners, children, friends and work colleagues. Everyday we have to make decisions and deal with people. From time to time we must deal with life changes and with loss and grief. Each developmental stage carries its own burdens and blessings. For those working in high demand occupations and workplaces, such as rural and remote health, the demands on physical and psychological self can be even greater.
An important part of keeping life and limb together under this pressure is making sense of it all. The making sense goes on in the background of our minds all the time whether we are aware of it or not, and although we do not have control over many events that impact on us, we do have control over the narrative that we tell ourselves. The fact is that when we are under stress, what we say to ourselves tends to be negative, for example: “I am hopeless” and “People are bad” are just two ways that we may narrate events in our lives.
Taking time out to examine these narratives gives you a sense of control and empowerment. It is so important to regularly “check in” to yourself and identify what it is that you are actually thinking and reflect on how that may be influencing how you are feeling and what you are doing. Make some choices around challenging unhelpful negative thoughts.
Sleep is central to physical and mental health
As you know, in times of crisis one of the most common symptom that people experience is sleep difficulty. During these times, people often go to bed exhausted and go to sleep but then wake early or have difficulty staying asleep. Being awake is often accompanied by racing, anxious and intrusive thoughts. The complicating factor during disasters such as the bushfires, is that these intrusive thoughts often have their basis in realistic fears about safety.
Being strategic during these times is critical, and if you are in a fire zone your Bush Fire Survival Plan is obviously foremost in your thinking. However, lying in bed and thinking about it when you should be sleeping is not helpful. Review it daily during the day during crisis times but then have faith in it and intentionally put thinking about it to rest when you want to sleep. This is a deliberate cognitive strategy that will help you wind down. Having a period of quiet time at least an hour before going to bed, listening to soothing music or reading a good book will help you relax and get ready for sleep. A mindful practice or progressive muscle relaxation when you get into bed is also helpful. Of course, it is important fora good night’s sleep not to drink caffeine in the evenings. Equally important is not to rely on alcohol or other drugs.
Sleep is central to physical and mental health. It is worthwhile spending some time thinking about your sleep hygiene during this period of disaster. Remember if you would like to discuss some further strategies, the psychologists on CRANAplus Bush Support Services are available 24⁄7 on 1800 805 391.
Who will you reach out to today?
The key to human survival is community and relationship. In times of disaster, it is more important than ever to not only reach out to other people but allow the time and space for people to reach out to you. Be prepared to both talk about and listen to feelings, especially negative ones of fear and hopelessness. Let the person you are talking to know that they are being heard and understood. Reaching out to someone in this way is an act of kindness that impacts on both the giver and the receiver. In these extraordinary times such acts, especially to people you might not normally reach out to, might save lives.
Who will you reach out to today?
- CRANAplus Bush Support Services 1800 805 391
- NSW Mental Health Line 1800 011 511
- Beyond Blue 1300224636 (National)
- Lifeline 131114 (National)
- APS (National) general psychological resources : www.psychology.org.au
- Information about bushfire smoke from the Acting Chief Medical Officer
- Supporting children through bush fire season