Gill Stannard

Monday, February 16, 2009

Recovering from the bushfires

The tragic events of the 7th February 2009 have left most of us in Victoria, if not all of Australia, reeling. The “Black Saturday” fires have surpassed all that have gone before in their ferocity, magnitude and human devastation. While those directly affected by the fires are still in shock and dealing with the immediate issues of survival, the rest of us are also experiencing a wide range of emotions in response to this event.

There is the thinnest of degrees of separation between most Melbournians and the places or people in the path of these fires. But even when we don’t know anyone directly involved there has been a huge ripple of grief through our community.

While we are trying to make some kind of intellectual sense of the horror weekend, our emotions may have taken on a life of their own. Some common reactions have been a sense of guilt (why am I feeling like this when I have lost nothing?), embarrassment, discomfort and great sadness or depression.

Survivor Guilt

“Survivor guilt” is term often applied to people who have lived through traumatic events such as these bushfires, coming through it while those around them have lost loved ones or a home. News stories of the past week keep showing examples of this – a person returning to a home left standing who says they should feel happy about it but can’t or another that has lost their house but talks in code of “those worse off” or “deserve help more than me”. But even out of the bushfire zone, we too can have a sense of survivor guilt by feeling embarrassed, helpless and inadequate in response to this.

There is no magic remedy for “survivor guilt” but recognising it and naming it, is a good place to start. Trying to talk to others about what you are feeling is helpful. There has been some great outpouring on blogs, where readers keep commenting they feel the same way and find comfort in knowing they are not the only one to respond like this. The main thing to remember is that your response is normal and has its own emotional logic. There is no right or wrong way to react to something like this.

Read this short article recently in the Sydney Morning Herald by the director of Lifeline for more information.

Grief, Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Another common reaction to the fires has been grief and it’s many stages. A commonly used model explaining most people’s reaction to grief is the one attributed to Psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. This outlines five stages in how we react to any kind of grief or loss. While the bush fires are an obvious example, as are any experience of death, it equally relates to relationships ending, being faced with a major illness (your own or someone close to you), loosing a job and many other common situations.

1. Denial. “I’m fine”. Often characterized by shock and disbelief at what has happened, we tend to claim we are all right and coping fine.

2. Anger. “It’s not fair”. We need to find someone to blame. Sometimes it is our self but it can be the ‘victim’, the authorities or someone or thing totally unrelated to the incident.

3. Bargaining. “I’ll do anything…” While some strike a deal with their god, others play out scenarios in their heads. A child whose parents are breaking up might think if they did their homework or ate their vegetables every night then it wouldn’t happen.

4. Depression. “There’s no point to life”. When life feels incredibly bleak with no glimmer of hope and we feel like it will never improve.

5. Acceptance. “I can go on”. Acceptance doesn’t necessarily mean life is the same as before but it is about finding a new normal.

We can’t force our way through the stages or say “well, I got angry yesterday so I can tick that off”, often people come and go backwards and forwards through the stages but ultimately depression comes before acceptance and is for most people is an unavoidable part of recovery.

If you have a history of depression or have suffered loss or trauma previously in your life, just watching the recent events unfold may trigger these feelings of grief, sadness, hopelessness and depression. Often when you have experienced a major loss in your life you have an increased empathy for the suffering of others. Even if you don’t know anyone in the path of the fires you may become overwhelmed with sadness and find yourself breaking down in tears. This is a normal reaction. However if your usual self-care fails to help and these feelings persist it is important to see a psychologist, trained counsellor or similar professional to help you deal with the underlying issues.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a complex anxiety based reaction to a stressful event. It is often characterised by reliving the situation over and over in your head, feeling anxious, hypervigilance, insomnia, phobias and avoidance of similar stimuli. While soldiers, survivors of torture and those who have been in previous fires are obvious candidates, so to is a person who has experienced a car crash or invasive medical treatment. While PTSD is an obvious outcome for most who have been at the front line of this fire, those who are not been directly affected by it but have a history of PTSD may be experiencing a triggering of their anxiety and stress, no matter how long ago their initial exposure was. PTSD needs specialised help from a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Natural Therapies

While talking and getting psychological help is the first step to recovery, the following remedies may also help this process.

Herbs for the nervous system – good quality, organic teas such as chamomile, skullcap, lavender and passionflower. One heaped teaspoon per cup, four-five cups a day.

St Johns Wort tablets or tincture, if you are not on prescribed medications (including the pill).

Kava root tablets (best prescribed by an experienced herbalist with good product knowledge for quality and safety) are excellent for anxiety and trauma.

Try to stop watching television and have a descent break from the media. Go for walks, get a massage, talk to friends, play soothing music, have a hug, play with your pets. Try to stick to some kind of routine, including regular meals and a set time to go to bed.

Flower essences for trauma

Flower essences are in the realm of complementary therapies known as “vibrational medicine”. The ‘essence’ of a flower is distilled involving a method of infusion and dilution, in a similar way to homoeopathy. While it is a challenge to modern science to validate any form of healing involving subtle energies, I have experienced hundreds of situations where I have witnessed the positive effects of these remedies. There are many different branches of the flower essences family. Three of the most widely used in this country are the original Bach Flowers, Flower Essence Services (previously known as the Californian Flower Essences) and Australian Bush Flower Essences

Arnica: Number 1 remedy for shock, helps the body and psyche recover from trauma. (Also useful as a homoeopathic remedy, taken as drops or pilules).

Bleeding heart: invaluable for grief and loss. Intense grieving, especially for those that have died or a relationship that has ended. A deep heart connection that has been severed.

See a beautiful photo of bleeding heart (Dicentra formosa) by Paige Woodward.

“Rescue Remedy”: a combination of 5 Bach flowers (Star of Bethlehem, Rock Rose, Clematis, Cherry Plum and Impatiens) that deals with different aspects of stress and emergencies. I think of it as for those “Beam me up Scotty” type of moments when feeling overwhelmed by a situation.

How to help someone who is grieving

When someone you love has lost a home, family members, a treasured pet in the bushfires, or through some other form of loss - what can you do to help them? Most of us feel overwhelmed and inadequate when facing someone else’s grief. The following may be useful:

If they are a close friend, then contact them, let them know you love them and are thinking of them. Ask if they want a hug. If you leave a message don’t demand to hear back from them - while talking to people can be healing, at other times it can be overwhelming. Call them again a few days, or a week later letting you know you are there for them when they are ready for it.

Try to leave your own agenda behind, whether it is that you feel the need to be useful or have past grief of your own that is overflowing – your friend doesn’t need that burden. Be patient.

Don’t push them to talk but don’t pretend nothing has happened.

They will need different things at different times. Don’t expect them to be consistent. One day they might want distraction, another time to cry or be angry. Everyone’s journey of grief follows their unique pattern.

Don’t forget them. When the buzz dies down about the fires, or the funeral is long over – people can often feel abandoned or isolated. Further down the track bring the flowers, food, wine and other comforts that you know they like. Often the full impact of loss takes weeks or months to fully hit. This event will take years to heal. It’s never too late to be there for them.

Further help

Lifeline – 24 hour telephone counselling service 13 11 14.

How to get a Medicare rebate when seeing a psychologist. (Making psychological care in Australia affordable).

Bushfire help contact numbers.

Health Trip shows on Anxiety, lifting our spirits and insomnia.

Listen to the podcast, available now online.


Anonymous said...

Sorry I missed your radio show yesterday, but glad to see your posting here. You offer some very thoughtful and helpful insights.
Of course the welfare of those directly affected by the fires is of the highest priority, and the firefighters and recovery workers are also dealing with similarly horrific experiences. Feelings of sadness, grief and guilt have touched all of us, I think.
I am all for pet therapy, music therapy and hugs!
Thank you for expressing practical advice for supporting others so well.

Gill Stannard Naturopath said...

Thanks for your lovely support.

Pets are wonderful therapy, which makes their loss even more heartbreaking under these circumstances too. Music and hugs are also wonderful advice.

Don't forget the podcasts - on the site of the show, they are usually up quite fast and you can also subscribe online to have them uploaded to your mp3 player if you want to catch up with the show after it has gone to air.

Thanks again for your comments.