AFTER THE FIRES
This Thursday (26th November 2020) marks one year since the start of the Currowan bushfire.
Over 74 days, the out of control mega-blaze scorched 500,000 hectares of land, destroyed 312 homes, cast a literal pall over the festive season and along with the many other fires burning at the same time - traumatised the nation.
As we approach the first anniversary of this country’s worst bushfire season ever, those of us impacted by the fires can expect to experience renewed trauma triggering.
As summer returns, so too do the sensory conditions in which the bushfires occurred. And in those sensory conditions, we may experience new and alarming access to memories that till now we have successfully buried, numbed or otherwise avoided.
Sometimes referred to as ‘psychological trauma’, traumatic experience is in fact held in the body. Trauma occurs when an event is too big, too unsafe or too protracted a threat, for our nervous systems to process in real time.
We become traumatised via our senses. The things we hear, see, smell, taste and touch during a scary experience are what gets imprinted on us as traumatic memory - and becomes bound up with the experience of threat to our survival.
For this reason, our senses are also the portals for the phenomenon known as ‘triggering’, in which traumatic material is suddenly and unconsciously activated in response to associated sight, sound, taste, smell or felt experiences.
During the fires, Australians were continually confronted with sensory information of threat to their families, homes and lives. For months we were assaulted by smoke filled air, orange tinged skies, war-like sounds of sirens, planes, helicopters - and all against the drought stricken landscape of our worst nightmares.
Those of us directly threatened by the fires relied on weather apps and fire maps for our survival. Unable to avoid them, their distinctive visual imagery and perpetual ‘pings’ became sensory cues synonymous with feelings of terror and vigilance.
Meanwhile, blanket media coverage of fires in every corner of the country saturated us all with the sights and sounds of unimaginable distress. Because we relied on the media for emergency information, this prolonged sensory exposure to distressing material, led to vicarious traumatisation – the result of witnessing the traumatisation of others.
There is no doubt that the 2019/2020 bushfires were a collective trauma. And as such, an assault on the neurobiology of the nation. With the arrival of the pandemic shortly after, many Australians have had very little time this year in which they could feel truly ‘safe’ or allow themselves to let down into the soothing ‘rest and repair’ mode of the parasympathetic nervous system, that is so vital for recovery.
Instead we have been put under still further strain and asked to remain hypervigilant, as we fought a new yet invisible enemy that loomed in every part of our daily lives – and still does.
As a therapist in regional Australia, many of my clients describe feeling that their experience in the fires has been eclipsed by the global pandemic, leaving them feeling overlooked, forgotten and struggling to find closure, when the world has just ‘moved on’.
In March, when they yearned to fall into the embrace of their community, they were instead suddenly forced to withdraw into isolation and avoid the very social activity on which their recovery depended.
And so, as the hot winds, blue skies and cicadas return; as schools close and holidays begin; as shops fill with Christmas carols and festive foods - those signs of the year’s end that may once have been a source of joy, may suddenly evoke different feelings altogether.
We may find ourselves unconsciously checking the wind; scanning the horizon; or dread waking to a clear sky.
We may be besieged by fragments of memory; have full blown flashbacks; or feel bizarre bodily urges to fight, flee or freeze. We may feel flat; struggle in our relationships; or want to shop, eat or drink to excess. We may have unexpected upwellings of anger, fear or grief.
And we may feel alone in our experience, ashamed in our struggle and wonder why we can’t ‘just get over it’.
While feeling triggered can be disruptive and distressing, it can help to understand that the reason it occurs is to facilitate the processing of the traumatic memory. So long as we simply repress trauma, it remains lodged in our nervous systems, compromising our capacity to function optimally.
When traumatic memory is triggered, it is our organism’s way of providing us with access to that stored material, so it can at long last be metabolised. In processing and integrating that which we could not process at the time of the trauma, we free ourselves from the burden of it and can be restored to our full human capacity.
Triggering can be subtle and occur in ways that feel manageable and do not disrupt our lives. By bringing awareness to the emotions and bodily cues occurring in us, we can safely, slowly integrate the traumatic material and experience relief.
But where triggering is chronic, overwhelming or raises feelings of terror, processing the experience and restoring regulation requires support from a professional skilled in the delicate art of releasing trauma, whilst maintaining safety and restoring regulation.
Yes, many of us will experience some kind of triggering this Summer - as conditions around us set the stage for remembering.
Just as we faced the fires this time last year, we will get through this. And we will do it together.