The Black Summer bushfires of late 2019 and early 2020 had a devastating impact across Australia, with lives lost, homes destroyed and millions of acres burnt.
While the initial outpouring of support and media attention kept the fire-affected communities in the public spotlight in the early parts of 2020, this quickly changed as the coronavirus pandemic struck.
For many, it has been almost one year since the fires took hold in their communities. According to Clinical Psychologist David Younger, this can be a particularly difficult period.
Stages of stress
Survival mode – The sprint
Mr Younger mentions that when there has been significant loss (houses, farms, schools), daily life is heavily disrupted, and people are forced to draw on a lot of energy and internal resources.
“The longer that goes on, the more tired people feel. Often they don't realise how much energy they’re drawing on and it's not until further down the track that they start to notice this tiredness and fatigue.”
Mr Younger explains that when reacting to an event like an approaching bushfire, people experience a state of stress known as survival mode – or fight, flight or freeze. This is essentially the body’s internal alarm system. He compares the response to running a 100-metre sprint.
“Typically in the moment, the body adapts into a very specialized state, which is designed to endure a physical crisis and to help increase the chance of our survival,” Mr Younger says.
“There will be a big dump of adrenalin into the bloodstream, and adrenalin gives us access to instant energy. Our thinking and our concentration become finely tuned and honed. We become focused on the immediate threat only.
“All we are aware of at that point in time is doing what needs to be done to get through, to ensure our safety and survival.”
Endurance mode – The marathon
Ideally in the aftermath of an experience like this, the body gradually returns to a balanced state in the days or weeks following. However, in the case of bushfires, there is often lasting damage that requires our immediate and ongoing attention.
This can range from uncertainty around returning after evacuating and rebuilding homes to euthanising animals and dealing with insurance companies.
This means people can be operating in what Mr Younger describes as endurance mode.
“Endurance mode, unlike running a sprint, is running the marathon. And in fact, it's running the marathon, followed by another marathon, followed by another marathon. It's what enables people to keep going to a job, then come home and work on the property, as well as cooking the kids’ dinner and helping them with their homework,” says Mr Younger.
As people’s brain functioning under stress changes, they lose sight of the bigger picture. Doing things to manage their health and wellbeing can often fall by the wayside. The process of recovering from bushfires and the resulting disruption can completely take over a person’s life without them necessarily realising this has happened.
“Endurance mode is driven by ongoing access to energy, of which there is only a certain amount. If you don't stop to rest and recover, one day you will run out of energy and become very, very tired.”
Staying optimistic and strengthening community connections
Despite the various struggles people in bushfire-affected communities will endure, Mr Younger believes there are some positives that can emerge.
“For instance, meeting people in their community that they’ve never met before and developing a new friendship. I’ve come across people who, as a result of going through a fire event, were able to reclarify the priorities in their life. And they've made some changes to their life and changes that in the end have been much better for them,” he says.
Mr Younger acknowledges that this has been made tougher by COVID-19, with restrictions limiting the amount of face-to-face interaction. However, he maintains the nature and quality of relationships in bushfire-affected communities are a key indicator of successful recovery.
“Wherever possible, community members should really try to not lose hope and optimism. Remaining connected is really important.”
Reaching out – accessing supports
Mr Younger says there are also a variety of other ways people can support themselves during this end-of-first-year period.
“Now is a really good time for people to check in with themselves. Often people set their expectations too high, and they're trying to get things done too quickly or get things back to normal, which is not always possible.
“What we find works better for people is for them to adjust their expectations and to find a speed or a pace for recovery that suits them.
Mr Younger also raises the importance of accessing both formal and informal supports.
“Informal supports are remaining connected with family and friends, setting aside time in life for enjoyable things, not allowing life to become entirely about the recovery process,” he says.
“In terms of formal support, a good starting point can be to just check in with a general practitioner at a local clinic, have a mental health check and a GP can talk with the person about what sort of formal support options are available in their area.
“It is easier to work on problems, issues and challenges sooner rather than later.”
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.