Most people find that going through a bushfire is frightening and extremely challenging. There are also the direct consequences of fire, such as property damage, disruption to lifestyle and emotional distress.
Bushfire-affected community members are typically very busy putting their lives back together over the next 12 months, and as a result the first summer often arrives before they realise. Clinical psychologist David Younger says that while physical preparation for bushfire is a priority, so too is emotional preparation.
What to expect
“The first summer tends to come around more quickly than people are expecting. That's usually because it's been a very busy year involving a lot of different things for people, and 2020 has certainly been a year like that,” he says, pointing to the additional challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has presented.
“When communities come into the first summer, they tend to have reminders of prior bushfire experience start coming back to them. People begin to experience reactivation of survival mode and their alarm system… gets activated far more easily than it previously did.”
“That is when people start to feel anxious or fearful.”
Mr Younger explains that community members might start to become pre-occupied with the threat of bushfire.
When it comes to preparing for potential bushfires, that reactivation of ‘survival mode’ might seem like a good thing. Mr Younger stresses that it’s helpful for the alarm system to be turning on when there is a real threat, but that the alarm can become sensitive and activate even when there isn’t. He gives the example of a neighbour burning off garden rubbish as being a typical trigger to heightened levels of fear and anxiety.
“If it’s turned on all of the time, it’s going to deplete the body of vital energy and resources, and people are going to feel increasingly tired and fatigued.”
“It’s also going to affect other things as well, like sleep or appetite, or maybe cause people to feel more irritable in relationships.
Mr Younger says that along with feeling fatigued around this time of year, people may start to reflect on their decisions and actions during the prior bushfire, and what they could’ve done differently.
“People even think back to their previous fire experience and decide that they made some terrible mistakes. It can lead to a loss or a reduction in their self-confidence as the coming fire season approaches and that in turn can lead to people questioning themselves about whether they will be able to manage if fire happens again.”
Being prepared – emotional versus physical preparation
For many people in Australia, getting physically prepared for the bushfire season (clearing the property, cleaning gutters, having a fire safety plan) is common and relatively well understood. However, Mr Younger believes it is important to distinguish between physical and emotional preparation.
“The research shows that people are more likely to stick to a plan if they’re emotionally prepared,” he says. “If people are not, they might not make the best decisions for themselves or they might not actually be able to solve a problem, if something comes up or something goes wrong in their plan.”
Mr Younger explains that the basis of emotional preparation is understanding that how we function as humans, in terms of thoughts, emotions and behaviours, changes significantly once we are confronted with a threat such as bushfire. He says that people enter into a very specialised state, where the primary purpose is to increase the chance of survival.
To do so, the body and mind make a series of adaptations, which is necessary but can make it more difficult to think on the spot and solve problems. If something unexpected occurs when they come under threat of bushfire, they may not be able to figure out what the best course of action is.
Mr Younger highlights that community members who have experienced bushfire previously may have the added advantage that they do have some idea about what to expect. But Mr Younger also points to the acronym AIM (Anticipate, Identify and Manage) as a strategy people can adopt in the lead up to the bushfire season.
- Anticipate – giving thought to the prospect of a bushfire and understanding that there will be periods of feeling stressed, anxious and worried. This is part of the body’s normal response system.
- Identify – learning how to pinpoint physical, emotional and thought-based reactions and responses early (these might include elevated heart rate, shortness of breath, feelings of fear, or thoughts that it will be hard to cope with another bushfire)
- Manage – developing practical strategies to combat and deal with those reactions and responses (muscle relaxation exercises, deep breathing techniques) as well as to challenge fear-based thoughts (for example with positive self-talk).
With summer already beginning in some areas, Mr Younger recommends several approaches as a starting point for those in bushfire-affected communities.
“Firstly, to start preparing. Now is a really good time. Don't leave it too late and don't just pretend that there won't be a summer and that there aren't going to be fires.”
“Secondly, to make that distinction between physical and emotional preparation, and to put energy and effort into both your physical preparation plans, but also into your emotional preparation. Ideally, rehearse both. Ensure that everybody is clear on what the physical preparation will involve but also given consideration to how you are likely to respond emotionally when/if confronted with the threat of bushfire again.
“Thirdly, draw on the support of others, family, and friends, and others in the community, we know that's incredibly vital and incredibly helpful.”
David Younger is a Clinical Psychologist and Independent Consultant with extensive experience providing support and assistance to communities, agencies and organisations throughout Australia affected by natural disasters and emergencies.