Fire anxiety: Tips for managing your mental health during and after a crisis

Natalie Parletta
Photograph: Steven Saphore/AAP

While Darren Baguley was stuffing the turkey on Christmas Day, his wife, Shireen, was putting out spot fires on their Nullo Mountain property in New South Wales. They’d been running on adrenaline for weeks, sleeping just four hours a night, protecting their home and orchard from wildfires encroaching from three directions while watching their paddocks burn.

At one point, after preparing and then waiting for the fires, Baguley says, “I just felt incredibly empty”. He was also worried, because he had told his wife they could defend themselves. “So that was weighing on me because I was thinking, what if I’m wrong? What if we both end up dead? What if she gets injured and basically it was my fault because I was the one who said we can do this?”

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They’ve been comparatively lucky. People just a few kilometres down the road came closer to losing everything. “They survived but they lost a lot more and right at the last minute they thought they were going to die, they thought it was all over, and they just ended up holding each other in a corner while their [property] blows up.”

Meanwhile, at least 28 people have died, more than 2,000 homes have gone up in flames and millions are spluttering on smoke fumes in Australia’s worst bushfire season on record. Apart from physical losses, traumatic events such as bushfires can impact people’s mental health, from common reactions such as shock, overwhelm, inability to focus or plan ahead, feeling tearful and obsessively replaying the event to serious long-term problems such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

There are several ways to tackle this.

Community support

In the short term, community and family support are most important, Prof Ian Hickie from the University of Sydney says. “The more communities can stay together, function together and resume their normal lives as quickly as possible and support each other, that’s the main way to reduce the psychological impacts,” he says.

“So in the immediate term what’s really important is supporting communities practically through infrastructure, like housing and accommodation and basic services, and then longer-term through support for employment, their businesses and schools so they can resume their normal community function. In certain communities it will be a sporting group, in others it’ll be a church or wildlife sanctuary or some other thing to reconstruct their lives.”

It’s vital to support existing services, Hickie adds, because sending in new charities, services and professionals who aren’t part of the local fabric can make things worse. Community connections and local services help people retain a sense of normality – even starting small, like having a cup of tea with a neighbour, says Prof Deborah Turnbull from the University of Adelaide. Indeed, the Baguleys found comfort taking time out amid the chaos to do simple things like read a book or watch a DVD, even if just for half an hour.

Be aware

Nearly half of Australians suffer a mental health disorder at some stage in their lives and are potentially most vulnerable to bushfire trauma. However, Turnbull notes, a survey of more than 2,000 young adults after Black Saturday found their experience of the devastating fires was a greater predictor of their distress.

It’s important to be aware of your emotions, she says. That might be feeling scared, anxious, or even terrified. Then, “think through what triggers those kinds of feelings and try and manage it”. She suggests “some really simple techniques like just being aware of your body and how relaxed or otherwise you feel, doing some really simple breathing techniques and just giving yourself some really caring self-talk.”

Hickie stresses that no one really knows how they are going to respond, and warns that people shouldn’t think they’re weak if they feel anxious or fearful, a big problem with many males and first responders who believe they must be strong and resilient.

Organisations such as Beyond Blue and the APS offer online resources to help people identify and understand their emotions and possible solutions, both during and after a crisis.

Problem solve

Problem solving can be very helpful, identifying any feelings or challenges and breaking them down to small component parts and working out if there’s a solution. Thousands of people in affected areas are faced with staying indoors, for instance, to avoid toxic smoke inhalation, which could be particularly difficult for people who have dogs or children or use outdoor exercise as a coping mechanism. Turnbull suggests researching alternative activities that would be safe. “This might also give people back a sense of control,” she says, “which is important for mental health and wellbeing.”

Don’t forget nutrition

Burgeoning research supports links between mental health, nutrition and diet. Adding to this, two clinical trials showed that micronutrient supplementation helped buffer the emotional after-effects of natural disasters – the Christchurch earthquake in New Zealand and Alberta floods in Canada.

Looking ahead

Disasters such as Ash Wednesday have shown that serious mental health issues arising from traumatic events don’t emerge for two or three years, says Prof Sandy McFarlane, a trauma expert from the University of Adelaide.

Extremely intense events, like losing a home or witnessing someone lose their life, can be particularly overwhelming. “If you think about a computer, if you have too many programs open, you’ve got too much information going in, the computer freezes,” McFarlane says. “The human brain is very much the same, so essentially these events become unprocessed. And those memories sit in people’s mind in an undigested manner and are constantly triggered by subtle things like smell, heat, sounds.”

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Becoming aware of those unconscious triggers, then focusing on previous moments associated with feeling safe instead, can be a helpful coping mechanism. Seeking support is important, even starting with a trusted GP for physical symptoms, which often go hand-in-hand with conditions like depression, anxiety and PTSD.

Medicare has a Better Access initiative, says Turnbull, that can help people access appropriately trained social workers and occupational therapists, which can be helpful for those who aren’t ready or able to see a psychologist or psychiatrist.

Apps and online resources are available too, like ifarmwell for farmers impacted by crises and an online Beyond Blue forum dedicated to coping with bushfires.

For the rest of us

Few Australians are immune to feelings of worry or despair from the bushfires and associated horrors, recognised as eco-anxiety. Turnbull says it can help to understand this response is normal, to be aware of the thoughts that are fuelling those emotions, and managing the feelings and thoughts with simple breathing and self-talk. It might also help to take a break from news and social media, and ultimately many say the best antidote is action.