So you’ve been to hell?

… Emotional recovery and what to look out for after living through a monster fire.

Adrenaline? Jumping at noises? Hyper busy? A wind phobia? Kids with nightmares? Disaster experts on some of the things to expect if you or your kids went through the monster fires — and how to handle them.

By Dr Jonica Newby, Science Reporter, Jan 6, 2020

My mother lives in Mallacoota — she evacuated in time, don’t worry — and she asked me to write this to help anyone in her community who stayed in place and experienced the massive sensory and brain overload that occurs when you live through a major fire. “What can you expect in the days and weeks after?” she asked me. “And what should parents look out for in their kids?”

To explain — I’m a science reporter, who made films for Catalyst, ABC TV, about what happens to our brains in a disaster. After such an intense experience, most people will carry adrenaline after-effects they don’t even realise, and have at least one symptom of post trauma stress — like powerful visual memories, jumping at sounds, even phobias for wind are common down the track after that overwhelming freight train noise that comes with a fire. This isn’t a disorder — it’s common; normal; and it helps to understand why it happens and how best to recover.

So for Mum, her community, and anyone else who might find this useful, I have just phoned two experts; psychologist and disaster specialist Dr Rob Gordon who helps people after the Black Saturday fires, and Professor Alexander McFarlane, psychiatrist and disaster expert, to make these notes.

Sensory overload; our brains during the fire

When a big fire is upon us, our brains change. The adrenaline rises — it’s impossible for it not to when skies turn from red to black, the fire’s roar fills ears, and smoke fills eyes and lungs. Our muscles and body are pumped for action and we are jittery, awake. Meanwhile some parts of the brain progressively shut down, while others ramp up. Our language centres and ability to speak are greatly reduced as the threat escalates. Our brain’s sensory centres take over — vision, hearing, smell. This is sensory overload.

That’s why after the fire has passed, images of what happened are so vivid and intense. You can see it when people describe what they’ve been through — they look up and around — hands pointing at things they can see in their head. This isn’t a regular memory — this is reliving. It’s like you are back there. It’s the same thing that happens to people who’ve been in active service.

Trying to process: our brains in the days and weeks after the fire.

So now the brain has to turn that experience into memory — but the sheer system overwhelm of a natural disaster disrupts the normal process. It’s partly because of the overload itself, partly because our brain’s subconscious world view that nature is a safe place has been shattered. And this is why things like this might happen:

My mum’s friend who was in the Mallacoota fire texted a week later to say she drank like a fish last night but “couldn’t get drunk.” Yep — that’ll be the adrenaline still talking. Dr Rob Gordon told me of a Black Saturday survivor who, months later, drove into fog, and had to pull over to have a little panic attack. The fog triggered reliving the smoke. I personally know a family whose young son started wearing ear muffs to bed because he couldn’t stand the sound of wind — he’d been home when the roof blew off their house. He’d developed a wind phobia; wind noise triggered reliving the house blowing apart. Once recognised, it was easily resolved. You don’t think of wind phobias, but they are surprisingly common after major fires, according to Professor Sandy McFarlane, who’s done long term studies of people who went through Ash Wednesday in Adelaide. (If you do start developing a trigger type phobia — wind, noise, smoke, for example — he recommends you tell yourself the difference between what’s making you anxious now and what happened in the disaster. It can help prevent the phobia worsening.)

Trouble sleeping, intrusive visualisations, feeling jittery; everyone is different but most people who’ve been through a fire will experience something. For kids, it often shows up as trouble concentrating at school.

Over days and weeks the reactions should gradually settle. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is diagnosed only if more than a month has gone by and multiple symptoms are not settling and may even be increasing. Studies show that after a disaster, 10–20% of the community will get PTSD. But Dr Rob Gordon estimates it’s two to three times that rate for anyone who had a life threatening fire situation. That’s a lot of our fellow Australians, given the scale of this disaster. Watch out for friends who stayed to defend. And also firefighters themselves. (According to long term studies, 30% eventually develop PTSD). Or anyone whose stress symptoms are getting worse. The classic signs of PTSD are repeated intrusive recollections, continued high adrenaline, hypervigilance and trouble sleeping, numbing or dissociation and “shutting down” emotionally, disruption of family life. But don’t forget those unexpected phobias to wind or smoke. The earlier this is dealt with professionally, the easier it is to resolve.

Watch out also that some people do really well early on, but PTSD sneaks up much later — particularly when life returns to more “normal.”

Practical recovery advice after living through a Disaster.

So here is the advice from Dr Rob Gordon, psychologist, and Professor Alexander McFarlane, psychiatrist.

1) Focus on how you feel safe now

One of the most useful things you can do is remember when you first felt like you were going to survive, says Professor McFarlane. This is especially important for kids. Focus regularly on feeling safe.

2) There is no rush! “A slow recovery is a good recovery”

It’s common in the aftermath of a disastrous fire, especially for men, to run around trying to “fix” everything as fast as they can. But being too “busy busy” can actually disrupt the brain’s ability to process the sensory overload it just experienced, and to heal healthily, says psychologist Dr Rob Gordon. It can also lead to damaging anger and frustration when, inevitably, bureaucracy doesn’t move as fast as you’d like. And in this state, you won’t make good decisions. “Don’t make a culture of 20 hours a day action,” says Dr Gordon. “Do what needs to be done to ensure your family is safe and has a place to live and then prioritise re-consolidating family life. There’s time.”

Dr Gordon observes that people who dive into the “busy busy” often neglect other important areas of their lives — to their cost later. Relationships and emotional balance need to be maintained.

3) Prioritise spending time with family and social networks.

Re-establishing enjoyable family and social routines is the biggest priority, according to Dr Gordon. “Think about the things that were important to you that you did regularly before the fire, and start doing them,” he advises. “Continue to enjoy recreation, leisure. Don’t forget to have fun. The whole family needs to get out of their high arousal, high adrenaline state.”

A strong predictor of whether children develop difficulties after a disaster is how well their parents adapt. Dr Gordon recommends parents just give their family their full attention regularly.

Socialising with people who’ve had the same experience, joking around with “black” humour, hanging out with the community; all help our brains reduce their adrenaline load and process the experience.

4) Reconstruct the story of what happened — especially for children.

After the emotional intensity of a fire, what will be held in memory are the most frightening bits at the expense of the reassuring bits. Sit down and go through the full story of what happened, especially if you have children, advises Dr Gordon. Sure, there were some scary moments, but make sure you fill in the full narrative leading up to those, and what you did to get through it, and what you achieved. Lots of good things happened.

“What they need to remember is that they did get through it,” says Dr Gordon, “and also to remember all the wonderful help they got.

5) Manage exposure to media — especially for children

No need to have the same frightening images recycled on the 24 hour news channels. Check in regularly with the news, but balance it out with leisure activities that reduce stress

6) Recognise when anxious and have a strategy.

Continuing heightened adrenaline and anxiety are common after living through a disaster. The adrenaline converts to anxiety when there is nothing we can do to solve the problem now. But the adrenaline makes us want to do things before we can. It helps to have strategies ready when this kind of anxiety flares. Anything that reduces arousal will do. Deep breaths, going for a walk, exercising and burning off excess energy. Dr Gordon also recommends cutting down on the stimulants — caffeine, alcohol.

7) Have confidence in your future — you are not alone

It may not be obvious now, but even if you have lost your home, be confident in your future. You will grieve. But you will not be homeless — something will come through. In a disaster of this scale, there will be support and resources down the track — from agencies, and from your community and social networks.

“Call to mind that even though you can’t see it now, many people have been through the exact same experience in previous fires,” says Dr Gordon, “and they have homes and good lives again. You will not be in this alone.”

8) Professional emotional help is available

Just knowing that these stresses and symptoms are normal may be enough for many people, says Dr Gordon. “If the symptoms are too intense, or over the next few weeks are not getting better, seek advice on recovery from your GP or a mental health professional. The earlier these feelings are addressed, the more likely they are to be resolved

And watch out for friends or family members who have been in the frontline — firefighters, people who stayed to defend in an intense fire. Their residual stress may not become evident until more time has passed.

I hope this is useful. There will also be plenty of expert advice from mental health professionals as the crisis unfolds. Gather all you can, that’s all I can suggest. Stay safe everyone.

Dr Jonica Newby

Dr Jonica Newby is a multi award winning Australian TV science reporter, presenter, writer and director.

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