Last night I could smell smoke. I couldn’t tell if it was the usual smoky Sydney air from the bush fires but it seemed to be getting stronger. I then heard a fire brigade siren in the distance, gradually getting louder. Soon enough, our building alarm filled the apartment with a booming voice shouting that we need to evacuate immediately. I scurried to get my two cats into their carriers, which was challenging as the alarm was so deafening that each cat went into fight / flight mode.
We discovered there was an electrical fire in the building. We all managed to get out safely and once we were out of harms way, I couldn’t help but reflect on what those in NSW and Victoria (people and animals) who have had to evacuate their homes from bush fires have gone through. I felt like I got a taste of what they would have felt and it was terrifying.
I know we are all very exposed to the absolute devastation caused by the bushfires in Australia. It’s hard not to feel helpless and overwhelmed, especially when we have a ‘leader’ who is in such denial of climate change and who gives us no hope that things are going to change for the better. We have no sense of security or safety from the ‘leaders’ in this country.
The only thing we seem to have is a sense of community with those who are not in denial, those who are trying to make a difference. I spoke to a climate change activist friend recently and he had a really good point. Each one of us should identify what we are good at. Some might be good at writing articles about the devastation in order to spread the word, some might be able to send funds to those in need, some take to the streets in protest. It’s important for us all to identify what we individually can do. I personally want to help those of you who are feeling the psychological effects of these fires, and climate change in general, whether you are affected directly or indirectly.
I want to provide an awareness of the following psychological terms and symptoms so that you can identify any you might have and get the help you need so you don’t slip into overwhelm and despair. We need to look after our mental health and keep hope alive. If we don’t, we risk falling into anxiety or depression where we live in constant fear and helplessness. This will paralyze us and prevent us from making any positive change. It’s the only way we’re going to get through this.
· Vicarious Trauma, or secondary trauma
This can occur after an indirect exposure to a traumatic event. People in the helping professions such as therapists or rescue workers are usually at risk of developing this. The thing is though, we are aware of it so can usually get the help we need. My concern is that many people who aren’t specifically in the ‘helping professions’ are feeling the effects of vicarious trauma through the devastation of climate change. We are currently immersed in the destruction and trauma caused by the fires in Australia.
Vicarious trauma often involves a shift in the person’s beliefs about themselves, others and their world view. It can manifest in the form of intrusive reactions like dreams or flashbacks and hyper-arousal reactions such as hyper-vigilance.
Symptoms of Vicarious Trauma Include:
· Feeling distracted
· Tearful often
· Feel as though the world is no longer a ‘safe place’
· Start withdrawing / isolating
· Increase in substance use
· Sleeping difficulties
· Difficulty concentrating
· Difficulty making decisions
· Difficulty focusing on anything other than climate change issues
· Decreased sense of purpose
· No time for self or others
These symptoms do not suggest you are weak or are a failure. The truth is, they reflect a compassionate, conscious human being who has the courage to avoid denial and face reality no matter how scary it seems.
· Compassion Fatigue
This is seen as a secondary form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
The difference is, this doesn’t happen to those who have experienced trauma directly, it happens to those who are helping others. People can easily absorb trauma, which then becomes our own trauma and ultimately leads to emotional and physical exhaustion, feeling like a failure and withdrawal.
A WAY TO PREVENT / MANAGE THESE SYMPTOMS
· Make sure you have time that includes self-care so that you can build your emotional reserves back up, take care of yourself and then continue to care for others.
· Have a Self-Care Checklist: (Have this written on your phone for easy access).
- How did you sleep?
- Are you eating 3 balanced, healthy meals a day?
- Take deep breaths to calm your nervous system
- Align your posture?
- Give yourself some space from the things causing your
- Wash your face / brush your teeth / shower
(We need to stay as clear minded as possible and these self-care strategies can help with this. Never underestimate small actions that can make you feel a bit better – these aren’t solutions to climate change, but they are little steps you can take to help you manage your emotions at this difficult time in our lives.)
· Don’t forget to do fun things that bring you joy:
- Smell Jasmine flowers
- Make a peppermint tea
- Read a light-hearted book
· Seek professional, therapeutic support.
· Reach out to those supportive, like-minded friends. We need to feel part of a supportive community to prevent isolation and withdrawal.
· Balance your news and social media intake. If you over expose yourself to negative news, you run the risk of feeling so overwhelmed that you could slip into despair.
· Integrate both positivity and negativity. Be aware of the dark side of optimism and the bright side of pessimism.
· No news/social media before bed and none before you get out of bed in the morning. Consciously choose what you want to expose yourself to. Give yourself permission to healthily detach yourself from the triggers of your symptoms. You need emotional breathing space to avoid feeling overwhelmed.
· Acknowledge positive changes that have already taken place to help keep us feeling uplifted. Have a look at ‘The Happy Broadcast’ and look at the work ‘Akashinga’ have done. Port Macquarie Koala Hospital aimed to raise $25 000 and ended up raising $1.146 million. Celeste Barber raised over $2 million in less than 24 hours for firefighters. Search for positive stories highlighting community and the natural human drive to survive.
H – HOPE
To overcome paralyzing helplessness.
E – EMOTIONAL RESERVES
Protect your emotional reserves through self-care strategies to avoid fatigue, hopelessness and to remain clear minded for positive action.
A – ACT
Identify what you are good at and what you can do right now. Nothing is too small.
R – REACH OUT AND RECEIVE SUPPORT
Reach out to like-minded supports as well as professional supports to avoid isolation and withdrawal.
T – TRY INTEGRATE POSITIVE AND NEGATIVE INFORMATION
If you over expose yourself to negative news, you run the risk of feeling so overwhelmed that you could slip into despair.