Dealing with Disaster – the bushfire response

12 Points Psychology is currently offering up to 6 FREE counselling sessions (without the need for a mental health care plan or the use of any sessions under the government’s mental health care initiative) with our counsellor, Elizabeth. These sessions can be face-to-face or via phone or Skype and are available on Thursday afternoon.

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We know many of those affected will not be ready to seek professional support just yet, so in the meantime, here is an incredibly thorough summary of some adaptive and helpful responses that we can focus on in the midst of these types of disasters to best to take care of ourselves and our children*.

Danielle Graber


Emotional First Aid

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

  • DO try to get the information about your loved ones ASAP, but don’t spend every minute re-dialing. The lines are busy, and you need to take breaks to focus on other activities from time to time.
  • DO watch the news for a limited time to get the information you need, but then turn off the TV or the radio for a while.
  • DON’T get hooked on the repetitive traumatic images on TV and social media. 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 stay isolated. Organize and meet in community groups, in neighbourhoods, YMCA’s and religious centres. Get together with family and friends and support each other.Copy of BACE
  • DO 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.
  • DO 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.
  • DO things that keep your mind occupied, such as watching a movie, knitting, cooking, playing with children or pets, gardening or being in nature.
  • DO some writing – note down your sensations, feelings and thoughts. It has been shown that writing assists in discharging anxiety and helps us feel more in control.
  • DO get sufficient rest. Our tendency is to run on adrenaline and exhaust our bodies.
  • DON’T let yourself or others re-tell your stories in a repetitive way which can ultimately deepens the trauma; instead listen to each other’s accounts of the event, 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.
  • DO allow yourself to feel the feelings you are feeling even if they are not pretty. Anger, rage and grief are very natural responses to traumatic events. Feel your feelings and allow your emotions to be expressed in a safe framework, but
  • DON’T act out with your anger, try and turn your reactions into a productive outlet (e.g., physical exercise).
  • DO stay active and find a way to get involved that plays to your strengths, e.g., volunteering at collection centres, giving blood or transporting goods into affected areas (when safe to do so).
  • DON’T take it personally if affected individuals get angry and don’t judge their responses. Just be there for them in whatever way they identify as most helpful.


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.

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 you experiences. Your brain will generally feel safer if there are other people nearby.

feel the feelingPeople 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 would go against our values in our “pre-trauma” state.

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 helps reground them in the here and now.

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.

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 behaviours such as excessive use of alcohol or drugs. Try to avoid hurting your body and brain any more than they’ve already 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. Seek professional help if you’re having trouble coping.

The best ‘antidote’ is to try to just be aware of these impulses, accept that it is how you’re feeling right now and know that it will pass.

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 more in the present and in your body. Notice how your breath gets deeper and calmer.
  • 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.
  • Most of all, be kind to yourself and those around you.


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*Adapted from Emotional First Aid – Brief Guide.

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”