Bushfire Trauma: 12 Expert Tips For Helping Someone Who’s Struggling to Cope: "We Need to Rally Together"

Bushfire Trauma – 12 Expert Tips for Helping Someone Who’s Struggling to Cope: “We Need to Rally Together”

Thousands of Australians impacted by bushfires will need emotional support in the weeks to come. Here are 12 ways to help someone who's struggling.

Listen: Max Schneider chats to Clare Bruce

By Clare BruceTuesday 7 Jan 2020

If you’re an Aussie, and you haven’t been been traumatised yet by the current bushfire season, you probably someone you know has.

Whether we’ve experienced serious loss and upheaval, or simply found the last few months a scary, stressful time, thousands of Australians will need emotional support in the weeks and months to come.

While the $2 billion fund just announced by the Federal Government will help communities to rebuild, there’s something far more important than the support of any government agency – and that is the many small ways we can help ourselves, our families, our friends and neighbours, on the road to recovery.

12 Tips to Help Someone (Or Yourself) Recover From Trauma

Max Schneider, a trauma counselling specialist and a trainer at the Australian Institute of Family Counselling (AIFC)*, recommends the following steps for anyone struggling with their emotions after a traumatic time.

1 – Know That It’s Normal to Be Struggling

The first step in coming to terms with an emotional funk, anxiety, or depression after a traumatic time, is to realise that what you’re experiencing is normal, says Max.

Some of us can find it frightening or even embarrassing to realise that we’re struggling emotionally. We may deny it, soldier on, isolate ourselves, or cover up our moods with silence—or ‘self-medication’. But if we can realise that our feelings are a normal human response, and that thousands of others are probably feeling the same way right now, then we’ve taken a good step towards recovery.

2 – Recognise Your Feelings and Name Them

One helpful step towards accepting difficult emotions, is simply giving them names.

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“Recognition is the first step,” says Max. “Understand that, ‘okay I’m feeling low’, ‘I’m stuck’, ‘I feel numb’, or ‘I feel scared’, or ‘I’m anxious’, or even, ‘I’m seduced by watching the media and the news and I can’t stop doing that’.”

You might do this in conversation with someone you trust, or by writing in a journal, or – if you’re a spiritual person – in prayer. Either way, labelling your feelings is the first step towards untangling them and processing them in a healthy way.

3 – Limit Your Media Consumption

Sure, it’s important to stay informed and safe – but it’s also easy to develop an unhealthy obsession or ‘addiction’ to watching all the latest news in times of disaster.

Catch up with the evening news or read the day’s headlines, but once that’s done, make a conscious choice to move onto something else. Take steps to change your headspace – such as switching off the TV, putting your phone in another room, and engaging in simple everyday activities, like cooking, chores, reading, or doing something fun and relaxing with family or friends.

4 – Get Back Into Normal Routines

Those who’ve had the upheaval of an evacuation, loss of property, or camping holidays thrown into chaos, will benefit from re-establishing normal, everyday routines.

Even if you’re not back in your own home yet, look for ways to recreate familiar activities and routines in your new environment.

For those with kids, maintaining a sense of calm and familiarity where possible, will help them to adjust to changes: “Give yourself some time where daily activities continue on, holiday activities that you may have planned for the kids, and a sense of normality with life,” says Max.

5 – Practice Relaxation, Mindfulness or Meditation

Countless studies have shown the great benefits and healing we can gain from intentional relaxation techniques, deep breathing, mindfulness and meditation practices.

These can be a powerful weapon against anxiety and depression in times of stress. Apps like Smiling Mind, Headspace, Simple Habit or Calm will help you get started as well as faith-based apps like SoulTime. If you’re a person of faith, you can incorporate prayer into your mindfulness or meditation, too: “Lots of people are engaging in Christian mindfulness, and those sorts of relaxation and ‘being present’ practices, which is really key. There’s lots of research that says that’s helpful,” Max says.

Alternatively, try making time for healthy, calm, relaxing activities that help to clear your head – such as reading, swimming, fishing, a cup of tea on the verandah, or a simple evening stroll.

6 – Remember: It Won’t Always Feel This Bad

Shot of two people holding hands in comfort

For those who are struggling, Max has the following reminder: “Whilst it’s really traumatic and difficult and challenging now, there is always hope.”

It’s simple, but a powerful truth: tough times and difficult emotions don’t last forever, especially when we are willing to reach out for support.

“People will recover with the right support and with the right community getting around them, helping to listen and to be a helping hand.”

7 – Connect With People. Don’t Isolate.

After a traumatic experience, Max says it’s not uncommon to feel disconnected from others, and to experience feelings of meaninglessness or pessimism about the future.

He says connecting with other people will help you to break these thought patterns and re-establish your sense of connection and security.

“If you’ve been affected by the fires, or if your family’s been affected, and you had to cut your holidays short, one response might be that you want to just go home and shut yourself off from the world, and not see people, and sort of ‘succumb to your cave’,” he said.

“That can be okay for a day or two, but to try and reach out to others and get reconnected to community is really important and part of the process. Once you’re safe and secure, it’s important that you really reach out to others and not isolate yourself.”

8 – Get Out Into the Community

If you’ve experienced loss and are struggling to make ends meet, don’t be afraid to reach out to your community for support.

Max explains that community connection is a powerful tool in the process of emotional recovery. And you may be surprised at just how willing your local community groups or neighbours are to help.

“A sense of community and support can be as helpful and as effective as one on one therapy or counselling.”

“I’m just stoked about the number of really positive stories around those communities and towns, that are already emerging, where people are gathering and helping each other and opening their homes and providing resources to people in need. I think that sense of community and support is so important and can be as helpful and as effective as one on one therapy or counselling.”

9 – Make Small Choices

Empowerment is an important step in recovery from trauma, too, says Max.

“What we know about psychological trauma is that it disempowers,” he said. “People have a sense of no control over their circumstances. We’ve seen that with the fires: they just came out of the blue and people have had no control over that. So making sure that we provide choices for people is really important.

“When I work with trauma survivors in a counselling setting, for example, I make sure I give people choices: ‘Where do you want to sit in the counselling room?’, ‘What do you want to talk about right now?’, or if we’re using art therapy, ‘What choice of materials do you want to pick right now?’”

“They’re little things that give people a sense of control and a sense of personal agency.”

If you’re helping your loved ones recover from a traumatic time, try taking them out – but let them choose the food, the venue, the movie, or the activity.

10 – Talk, And Encourage Others to Talk… But Be Sensitive.

The best way to encourage someone to talk about something difficult, is to offer a listening ear—but make sure you’re sensitive.

“It’s really important that we don’t push for [people to share] the trauma if they aren’t ready to talk about it there and then,” said Max. “But its’ also not helpful to avoid asking because of our own discomfort.

“What I’ve seen is, some people are ready to talk and process things straight away, others will take their time. What’s really important is that we don’t push people, and that we’re open and we provide the safe space for people to come to us when they need to.

Try using a statement like the following: “I’m here for you to listen, for as long as you want, and when and if you are ready.”

11 – Consider Counselling

Woman in a counselling sessionOnce you or your friend has started opening up a difficult experience, you may then consider getting support from a trained counsellor.

“Invite people to consider the support that’s out there in the community, from [church- or charity-based] counselling, to professional organisations like Lifeline, Headspace, Beyond Blue, the Suicide Callback Service and the accredited counsellors and psychologists in the area,” Max suggests.

“The stigma around mental health in Australia is changing… people are a little more open to [counselling]. Give people options – and not necessarily a psychologist. It can be a trauma service, or the school counsellor, or a trusted friend.”

12 – Recognise The Signs of Post Traumatic Stress, and Get Support

Over the coming weeks, if someone you love is suffering ongoing post traumatic stress, it is time to get some professional help, says Max.

“At the moment what we’re seeing is the government and communities and everybody rallying together to get people to safety,” he said, “but once people feel safer and the immediate danger passes, [that’s] where the potential for post-traumatic stress will start to come into play.”

Some of the following symptoms may be signs a person is experiencing Post Traumatic Stress:

  • Avoiding people, news or events that remind them of the trauma they’ve experienced
  • Avoiding the places that remind them of the trauma or the grief
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Sleeplessness
  • Bottling up their experience and avoiding conversation about it
  • Wanting to talk about their experience excessively

“If people two, three, four weeks after the event continue to re-experience trauma, and have flashbacks and nightmares and things, that’s where the support of a counsellor or a professional will be needed.”

A Tip for Compassionate Friends and Family

If you are providing emotional support for a friend or family member and it’s getting little overwhelming, it’s okay to set a limit and look after yourself too.

Max explains: “I know I’ve worked with trauma survivors, constantly wanting to talk about what they’ve been through. And that can be distressing and difficult to listen to if you’re not a trained person.

“The advice I give for family and friends is to hang in there, and help to be a witness to some of that story and some of that pain and some of that trauma – but make sure that you are referring people to professional if you’re ill-equipped. [It’s] to look after yourself as well – because trauma can be ‘contagious’, and you want to make sure that you’re as supported as you can be.”

We Will Be Okay. “Tomorrow Will Be Better”.

It’s easy in a protracted disaster to lose hope. But, as Max says: “The Australian spirit and community is strong.”

We will recover, and things will get better.

“At scary times, I think we often can be overwhelmed with the darkness or the sense of the future not being great,” said Max. “But we need to rally together and understand that if we support each other, and we provide avenues of support and help, then tomorrow can be better. And it will be better.

“It might take time to rebuild and to strengthen each other, but with support, anything is possible.”


* The Australian Institute of Family Counselling is a Christian counselling training organisation, offering accredited qualifications and professional development short courses that integrate psychology, theology and spirituality. They are currently preparing a professional development short course on trauma and disaster recovery, from a Christian perspective – to help train those who help others. Contact them for expressions of interest.