The bushfires which continue to threaten our country have already left a path of destruction behind them. Lots of people are being subjected to ongoing distress, stress and trauma as a result. This is causing substantial grief and significant loss over a long period of time. At the same time, we have seen our community pull together and support one another, with stories of incredible courage and resilience. And just as small shoots of green are sprouting of the blackened earth so too there is hope for healing and recovery, as well as good support available.
The fires and other catastrophic events including hailstorms, flash floods on a background of a protracted drought, the ongoing threat of further fires and now the Coronavirus pandemic have placed the whole country on high alert. Even if we haven’t been directly impacted, we have all been affected. Our sense of safety and security has been challenged individually and collectively. The media and social media keep us updated, but in updating us, also expose us to daily, and often hourly feelings, and in some cases, the reality of ongoing danger.
Many of us are already living on high alert (and can be shut down at different times) from the impacts of prior trauma, often from childhood, although also as an adult. The current danger can leave us feeling powerless and helpless. This ongoing fear can bring back memories and feelings of our past trauma during which we had similar feelings. This can be a trigger for a range of trauma symptoms. It can be helpful to understand the broader context of what is happening in our communities and globally, and how this links with past traumatic experiences. It helps to reflect on what is happening to us to make us feel this way, and also to know that there is information and support available.
Research (neuroscience) helps us understand how stress affects our body and brain. When we are in danger or think we are, our body switches to automatic. Our thinking brain switches off and our stress response takes over. Our stress response is a survival response. It is part of our biology. It helps us survive danger. It is innate – biologically ‘built in’ and happens outside of our conscious awareness.
When responses are innate, we do not intend them. They simply ‘cannot be helped’. We survive in one of three main ways. We fight, we run away (flee) or we freeze (shut down). When we are in fight or flight, we become agitated (on high alert). We call this hyperarousal. When we freeze, we shut down, go numb or dissociate (i.e. we disconnect from our current experience – this is not conscious). We call this hypoarousal. When the danger passes, our thinking brain turns back on. Our body becomes calm. We return to a resting state. In the resting state we can repair. This happens with everyday stress.
Trauma it is different. For people with trauma histories, or when are in danger, (or think we are), the stress response stays turned on. Our body and brain are flooded with stress hormones e.g. adrenaline and cortisol. When this happens, we stay in survival mode. It means that we can’t readily return to a calm state of repair. What’s more we can be triggered into this response – by cues in the environment. These can be sensory cues i.e. stimuli which activate one of our 5 senses – smell, touch, sight, hearing, taste or something which reminds us of prior trauma. Often the trigger is not obvious. In the current situation there are lots of triggers for many of us, including a felt sense of danger, threat and powerlessness.
Sometimes when we are triggered, we experience sudden strong feelings or have a sense of disconnection, distance and difficulties being present in our lives. Strong and sometimes sudden feelings of anger, fear, sadness and frustration are common. We can find it hard to manage or ‘regulate’ these feelings. This is often because we didn’t have an opportunity to learn how to manage them when we were a child. Usually co-regulation (a safe adult person helping a child manage their distress) occurs over time in a safe relationship with an adult caregiver and provides children with the tools to manage situations as they mature and develop. Those of us who did not have this opportunity might struggle with strong feelings. At other times we can experience flashbacks – a reliving of prior trauma with an intensity of feelings, sensations and movements from the past which can be overwhelming and disarming. If this is happening to you, it can help to understand the reasons for it and seek support.
Ongoing trauma is overwhelming. We need to adapt to survive. These adaptations are called coping strategies. Coping strategies form pathways in the brain. These become familiar. They become our ‘go to’ (default) responses during stress and more trauma. We develop coping strategies to help manage strong feelings and changes in arousal. People use different coping strategies to help reduce the pain and distress of their trauma response. Some survivors have learnt health promoting coping strategies as adults. These include a range of self-care activities, seeking professional support and acts of self-acceptance. Others might use coping strategies learnt earlier in life including alcohol and drug use, self-harm, anger, aggression, withdrawal and dissociation. Some of these strategies can create further challenges in our lives. They are not challenging because we are trying to be difficult. We are just trying to keep ourselves safe in a dangerous world with the coping skills that we have learnt.
If any of this is happening to you and you would like to speak with a trauma specialist counsellor, please call Blue Knot Helpline 1300 657 380 between 9-5 Mon-Sun ADST. Speaking to a counsellor can help you feel safe and supported and find ways of understanding what is happening as well as creating pathways to ongoing support. Blue Knot is not a crisis service. If you need crisis support please call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 224 636.