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Your wellbeing resources

Your health and wellbeing is our priority. We've collated resources that will help you on your recovery journey.

Dr Rob Gordon is a clinical psychologist and expert in mental health, first aid and supporting people affected by bushfires. He's been working alongside Bushfire Recovery Victoria (BRV), providing advice and support for bushfire-affected communities.

A message from Dr Rob Gordon, 1 year on

'At the beginning of this journey, drawing on what people have told me after other disasters, I made the case to communities that a rushed recovery is not necessarily the right recovery.

I’ve encouraged people to take their time and take a moment to prioritise their personal health and wellbeing and protect what they can’t replace while they deal with their losses – because getting one’s life back together is not a sprint.

One of the ways that Bushfire Recovery Victoria has worked to help people take time with big decisions is the short-term modular housing program. It lets people live in comfort and back in their community for several years before they decide whether or not to proceed with a rebuild.

The Case Support Program has also provided a real, local point of connection to people in need, and made it easier for those who wouldn’t ordinarily reach out for support to take it up.

It has continued over time – because the most important factor in any recovery is the decisions people make right now, 6 months to 2 years after a disaster.

To bushfire-affected Victorians, I say that no recovery finishes after 12 months. There’s a fair way to go yet. But it will end. This is a phase of your life, not its totality.

By finding a sense of community in your local area, with your passions, and with your friends and family – and by taking up the support that you are entitled to and deserve – you will emerge stronger than you know.'

Webinars and materials

We've collated resources to help you on your mental health and wellbeing journey. 

Below are some links to webinars on a range of topics that might interest you.

Dr Rob Gordon has developed one-page documents to compliment the webinars.

The Bushfire Recovery Tips: From Then To Now document was co-produced by Dr Rob Gordon and CoHealth.

Download a copy or read the information via the dropdown selection below. 

  • Understanding different emotions and reactions

    The new summer brings memories of the 2019–20 bushfires. There are various reactions – fear and anxiety, exhaustion, anger and frustration that life is not returning to normal. 

    These reactions are expected after dramatic, traumatic or painful events. Understanding the various reactions help to work through them and continue recovery instead of bringing back the painful past. 

    Living through dangerous, painful and distressing experiences puts us into survival mode and focuses us on our senses, decision-making and actions, and they arouse intense emotions. 

    Strong reactions and triggers

    In survival mode, strong links form between sights, sounds, emotions and what we imagine with the instinctive mind. We connect smoke, heat, wind, sirens, the emergency app warning sound with fear, panic, confusion and threat. The sights and sounds in the next summer become 'triggers' to fire off the same emotions as when they were formed. 

    Strong reactions are common when the conditions associated with the fire experience occur again. But reacting strongly strengthens the link so we become upset at smoke, heat and anything else associated with the fire experience. Anything similar triggers the whole experience.

    Though the smells and sounds seem the same as the day of the bushfire, they aren’t the same.  The smoke is of a burnoff, barbecue or small fire. The gusty north wind is not blowing out of a forest dried by years of drought; there is grass around but it still has moisture in it. It is a hot day but the conditions are not those of the firestorm. 

    Everyone who went through the fire will not know all their triggers until they find themselves in the situation again. But it is essential to change the reaction by remembering how the present situation is different to the fire instead of repeating the emotions. Thinking of how this situation is different separates emotion of the past from the present and helps to put it in the past and helps us be ready for the present situation instead of rerunning last year.

    Healing takes time

    It will take several summers without a bad fire to get this one into perspective. But if we allow the triggers to reactivate the emotions without understanding them, it will take longer.

    Thinking about what has been learned, what was not known, and what could be done differently if it happened again all allow the past to help prepare for the future. Accepting and learning from mistakes helps to feel more prepared and confident. Discussions with family and neighbours, working out what everyone will do if there is another fire counteracts fear and replaces it with a plan.

    Following these suggestions means each new summer can help towards getting over last summer and making it an important part of an experience that makes us wiser.

  • The new summer brings memories of 2019-20 Eastern Victorian Bushfires. There are various reactions - fear and anxiety, exhaustion and feeling it is too much to deal with again, and anger and frustration that life is not returning to normal.

    These reactions are expected after dramatic, traumatic or painful events. Understanding them help to work through them and continue recovery instead of bringing back the painful past.

    Living through dangerous, painful and distressing experiences puts us into survival mode and focusses us on our senses, decision-making and actions and they arouse intense emotions.

    In survival mode, strong links form between sights, sounds, emotions and what we imagine the instinctive mind. We connections smoke, heat, wind, sirens, the emergency app warning sound with fear, panic, confusion and threat. The sights and sounds in the next summer become “triggers” to fire off the same emotions as when they were formed.

    Strong reactions are common when the conditions associated with the fire experience occur again. But reacting strongly strengthens the link so we become upset at smoke, heat and anything else associated with the fire experience. Anything similar triggers the whole experience.

    Though the smells and sounds seem the same as the day of the bushfire, they aren’t the same. The smoke is of a burnoff, barbecue or small fire. The gusty North wind is not blowing out of a forest dried by years of drought, there is grass around but it still has moisture in it. It is a hot day but conditions not those of the firestorm.

    Everyone who went through the fire will not know all their triggers till they find themselves in the situation again. But it is essential to change the reaction by remembering how the present situation is different to the fire instead of repeating the emotions. Thinking of how this situation is different separates emotion of the past from the present helps to put it in the past and helps us be ready for the present situation instead of rerunning last year.

    It will take several summers without a bad fire to get this one into perspective. But if we allow the triggers to reactivate the emotions without understanding them, it will take longer.

    Thinking about what has been learned, and what was not known and what could be done differently if it happened again all allow the past to help prepare for the future. Accepting and learning from mistakes helps to feel more prepared and confident. Discussions with family and neighbours, working out what everyone will do if there is another fire counteracts fear and replaces it with a plan. Following these suggestions means each new summer can help towards getting over last summer and making it an important part of experience that makes us wiser.

  • Reactions

    • There are many common, normal reactions to disaster. People often experience irritability, sadness, loss of concentration, find it hard to pay attention, have difficulty planning, and feel overwhelmed or fatigued. Remember there is no right or wrong way to experience a disaster – we all manage in different ways.
    • Disaster events have a well-understood process, from those first actions and survival responses, to a regrouping after the event, moving on to immediate tasks afterward, then confronting all the tasks ahead and wondering how and if it will all get done.
    • Often people get so busy just getting on with it they say, “I can’t stop or take a break, there is too much to do”. The body is running on ‘cortisol’ (our primary stress hormone) to fuel the tasks, the mind is always going and there's a lingering tiredness – Does this sound familiar?
    • People will have their own thoughts, feelings and fears about the approaching fire season. It’s normal that some things might trigger a reaction. You might experience a racing heart or feelings of dread. This is normal and grounded in an important and ancient biological survival function. However, if you find these feelings becoming more uncontrollable or your distress is too much, you may benefit from seeking support – Who could you talk to or ask for help in this situation?

    Recharge

    • Stress distracts us from ourselves; we stop listening to our bodies, minds, emotional and social needs. It is important to take time to assess your energy levels. Recovery is a marathon, not a sprint, and it is important to conserve and protect your energy.
    • Identify and focus on the things within your control, like regular sleep patterns, relationships, social activities, your thoughts and where you focus your energy.
    • We know from the evidence, making time for a regular break or social contact not only helps us feel better but it also makes us far more efficient than if we just kept going because we’re too busy and there’s too much to do – What does taking a break look like for you?
    • Oddly enough, if you take a break you get more done because you function better. Doing something enjoyable and putting aside your tasks is giving your brain a rest. This makes you more efficient.
    • Prioritise quality of life, recreation and things that give you energy, joy and meaning. Think about before the bushfire – What did you do for fun? Who did you do it with? When did you do it?
    • Take a break from the location of your situation – visit friends and relatives, take a day trip or a small trip away if you can. Who could support you to do this?

    Routines

    • Often, we underestimate how important our basic routines are for general wellbeing. Things we might have normally done day-to-day, in an automatic way. When routines are interrupted or disrupted it throws us off balance.
    • Routines can provide security, familiarity and a sense of safety.
      • Which of your daily routines have been impacted post bushfire? 
      • How might you restart these, or what new routines could you make?
    • If you find yourself stuck in a routine driven by worry, stress and busyness think about how you might build leisure time or even something new or out of the ordinary to break the stress-driven autopilot mode that it is so easy to fall into.

    Relationships

    • We know from well-established evidence that relationships and social connections are important for getting through hard times.
    • Who are your important connections?
      • Our social, family, friend, colleagues, neighbours and other community connections are nourishment for wellbeing. Deliberately making time for this is essential for recovery.
    • Unplanned things are great for telling people you really care, or that you are cared about – like getting a surprise phone call, someone dropping in to say hi, or giving someone a call. This helps restore community after disruption, especially on that longer road.
    • Keep talking to people – they may offer solutions that you can’t see or support you didn’t realise you needed.
  • Tourists returning to bushfire areas: Protecting business and self-care

    Tourists and visitors returning to bushfire-affected areas create mixed feelings. They are welcomed as a sign of normality and good business, but their reactions can cause problems and stressful encounters. It is a predictable tension. Sometimes tourism providers welcome them while the rest of the community feels intruded upon, or the same people feel both reactions at different times depending on how their visitors respond.

    These notes draw on experience working with tourist businesses over a number of disasters to offer pointers to manage the experience and offer strategies to deal with the stresses.

    What to expect from tourists

    People coming into a community affected by disaster typically display a range of responses. 

    • Empathy and compassion: especially if they are informed on the nature of the event and the losses sustained. Empathy helps a person draw on their experiences and relate the impact to something they have been through themselves. Those who have empathy are likely to respect privacy and wait to be invited to talk about it. Sometimes they have their own emotional associations to the place from the past. 
    • Curiosity: Their awareness of the drama makes them want to know more about it to understand what it was actually like. They often want to satisfy their curiosity and overlook the impact that their inquiry might have on those who went through it.
    • Excitement and sensationalism: Many people have stable, secure lives and have not been exposed to violent natural events except through the media. They are excited to think they are where it all happened, and locals are sources of information. Their excitement makes them overlook what locals went through. Excitement overrides privacy and blocks awareness of the potential lingering emotional distress.

    What tactless or unaware tourists say            

    There a number of typical responses that can be expected.

    • Inquisitive: They genuinely want to know about the events. They ask questions like what happened, were you there, what was it like?
    • Personal inquiries: They imagine the person in front of them in the disaster and want to know about them. They ask, did you lose your house, do you know anyone who lost theirs, did you have to evacuate, did you fear for your life? They are unaware that such questions take the person back into a traumatic and distressing experience.
    • Hurtful questions: These show how unaware the questioner is about the effects of traumatic and tragic events. Their overriding interest is to satisfy their curiosity and feed their interest. They ask are you still affected, how come things have not been rebuilt, it’s been months now you should be over it, it doesn’t look that bad, you weren’t affected were you, you would be better to get on and forget about it rather than dwell on it.

    Such questions and comments come from the interest and excitement often equated with media ('it was unreal – just like a movie'). They have no relevant experience to relate to what local people have been through. They are unable to imagine what it was like and equate it with lesser crises they have been through. They don’t know how long genuine recovery takes and emotional and personal recovery continue long after things seem back to normal.

    Some people feel threatened by uncontrollable threatening events, and need to make light of it, and imply if they had been there, they would have dealt with it better, quicker or more effectively. Minimising or denying reality is a common way of avoiding the pain of tragic and traumatic events.

    What can be done about it?

    Expect and prepare for tactless, uninformed comments. Prepare materials ahead of time that might provide information about what happened or answer common questions. A sign on the counter may tactfully indicate staff prefer not to discuss the day of the disaster, but the information is available in the information sheet available there.

    Such information can provide facts, photographs and personal accounts of the event. It provides a focus for any conversation and information does not need to come from the staff member. It reduces the opportunity for questions. A statement about the particular circumstances of the premises may be added to it. 

    A brief statement about the emotional impact might also be made available such as:

    'Welcome to our community and to the local café. We hope you enjoy your stay. Please be aware the events of the recent fires were distressing to many people in this community and although we are well on the road to recovery, many people still feel hurt and sensitive to questions about it. Please respect the privacy of the community.'

    In order to avoid repeatedly answering the same questions, a sheet of contact information can provide details of where further information can be obtained for people who want to know more, including local and state media, local websites and local government resources. 

    It is helpful for tourism providers in an area to exchange experiences and develop a list of common questions they are being asked. Instead of having to improvise answers while busy serving them, simple scripts can be developed that provide answers but do not reveal unnecessary detail and direct attention away from sensitive issues.

    Prepare simple, polite responses that can protect from intrusion such as:

    • 'Thanks for asking but it’s still a bit raw to discuss – there is information at the information centre that may provide what you are looking for.'
    • 'I’d rather not talk about it if you don’t mind, it brings it all up again and we are focusing on the future.'
    • 'Yes, it was a terrible time for everyone, but now we’re focused on getting back to normal.'

    Responding to hurtful or intrusive questions

    • Be prepared – someone will inevitably ask them.
    • De-personalise them – remember that anyone in your situation would feel as you do and the person asking is unaware of what they are saying.
    • Recognise the questioner’s lack of experience of trauma and tragedy and unawareness of their effects.
    • Protect your boundaries, preserve your role as the business provider and focus on the service you are providing.
    • Try not to show emotion that may further stimulate the person. Some people feel guilt when they cause upset and then protect themselves by blaming the person they have hurt.
    • Have short, simple responses ready that clarify your position while allowing the questioner to keep their dignity – usually ignorance is the basis of the questions.
    • Have some jokes ready to distract and throw them off serious questions such as, “yes it certainly put us off BBQs for a few weeks!” or “Well I’ve given up smoking, so I don’t think about it!” 
    • Share jokes, anecdotes, answers and sayings so everyone can use them.

    Managing emotions

    Be prepared for the emotions that may be roused: hurt at the insensitivity, anger at the intrusion, impatience that it is the same dumb question again, sadness at reminders of loss. 

    Have a few techniques to restore your emotional control:

    • Breathe slow and deeply, speak calmly, think about what you will say.
    • Focus on the here and now such as what the person is asking and how to answer them not based on your memories.
    • Have a few strategies up your sleeve such as suddenly interrupting the conversation with “Oh excuse me just a moment, I can hear the phone out the back/I think something’s boiled over” so you can step out of the immediate situation for a moment to compose yourself.
    • Ask a colleague to take over for a moment (if there is one).
    • Take a short break if you are feeling a build-up of emotion – people are used to waiting for a few moments and that may make all the difference.

    Recognise and take care of your own stress as you get back to business

    Develop a simple briefing process for yourself and your staff before the start of a day or shift to think about likely stresses that will come with the routine work with questions people are likely to ask. Make sure materials needed are available and everyone knows where they are and remind everyone about the responses you have learned to use to manage the intrusions.

    Build a support network of people with whom you can share your experiences, frustrations and hurt feelings. Others in the same business can be supportive of work-related stresses. 

    Share the experience by having opportunities to talk, discuss, debrief and solve problems.

    Report responses you found worked well and seek ideas for situations where you were not sure what to say. Others can often help to find words or phrases that work.

    Use business networks to arrange access to trained professionals to be available to conduct debriefings or support sessions about difficult encounters. These might include staff from several businesses. Remember if staff groups are under stress it is often expressed as interpersonal tensions and conflict. Such sessions help work through the impact, help learning and preparation for new events and people to be better prepared.

    Support processes are most effective when they are provided before things become too intense and repeated regularly.

    Self-care

    Some simple self-care strategies will reduce the cumulative impact of these stresses:

    • take regular time out
    • preserve a sense of humour
    • be part of a supportive group
    • have ways of managing emotion when it is raised
    • focus on making the interaction successful for your business
    • remember as things normalise these questions will reduce, but there will be people who will come a long time after who will be curious

Check out our Recovery Support page to learn more about the support available to you. 

Reviewed 20 April 2021

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