January 18, 2020
Bushfires, positive psychology, self care, and trauma.
When does stress become harmful?
Consider how the accelerator of your car works. When you need extra speed you step on the gas, no problem. But if you drive at high speed all the time your engine will burn out.
We too are designed for short term adrenaline. When a sabre-toothed tiger wanted to eat one of our ancestors they stepped on the gas. But we lose more sleep over threats that remain constant or occur outside our normal experience. Scientists call this ‘allostatic load’, which basically means when stress is allowed to continue and add up it causes harm to our brain and body. In short, we need to find a way of stepping off the gas.
Front line organisations such as The Australian Red Cross have published hard won guidelines for Psychological First Aid in emergency situations. Here is a summary.
1. Create safety: Mindfulness works miracles, but it won’t protect you against a bushfire. If you are in an emergency zone, or if smoke is triggering your child’s asthma, your foot remains squarely on the gas. Reducing the immediate threat and accessing basic resources is always the first priority.
2. Promote calm: Once your basic needs for safety and survival are met, it is possible to start lowering stress. Physical touch, counselling and debriefing, mindfulness, massage, or even helping others in need can all help. Whatever helps to sooth. Gradually bring the tempo down.
3. Connection: Positive connections to friends, loved-ones, professional supports and your local community are powerful resilience factors and a proven tonic for healing. Reach out to those who understand and want the best for you. If you are in the role of supporting others connect people with their loved-ones or others who have a calming influence.
4. Control: A sense of control increases positive brain chemicals such as serotonin. Find ways to take charge or make a difference, however small. For example, you can donate. You can send messages of appreciation to firefighters. You can send your views on climate policy to your local MP. You can plan your next holiday to support an affected region.
If you are in the role of supporting others find ways to empower them. Involve them in decisions that affect them. Provide real options and respect their choices. Validate their responses as perfectly normal reactions to extraordinary events. And provide hope.
In the short term you (or the person you are supporting) may experience changes in sleep, mood or irritability. You may experience flashbacks or strong reactions to things that remind you of the event. If this continues for a month or more after the crisis talk to your GP or allied health professional.
For more information