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Managing anxiety when your fear comes to life

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Bushfire trauma can have a profound impact on existing mental health issues. Finding the right support is key to getting through disaster recovery and bushfire anniversaries.

The town of Wolumla, on the New South Wales south coast is a small village just south of Bega, surrounded by picturesque farmland. But over the summer of 2019/20, the landscape changed. On New Year’s Day, a ring of flames surrounded the region, with fires burning to the north and south. The sky turned orange, blotting out the sun. The ground was blanketed in ash. Fear gripped the town.

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Taking steps to rebuild relationships through bushfire recovery

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Bushfire trauma puts huge pressure on even the strongest relationships. It’s important to realise you’re not alone as you recover.

Bushfire disaster is a perfect storm for anxiety. A lack of control of the situation combined with the threat of loss can be a fertile ground for feelings of despair, uncertainty and hopelessness.

Grace, from Long Beach NSW, knows this all too well. She and her family were evacuated three times during the Black Summer fires. And while their house survived, her childhood home, where her parents still lived, was lost to the flames – an event she describes as heartbreaking.

The menacing fires and displacement both brought out strong anxious feelings for Grace. “It’s hard when you suffer from anxiety as it is,” she says. “Then, when you’re faced with that fear, it’s even harder.”

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Finding a way through your own bushfire recovery

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Bushfire recovery is different for everyone. Finding a way back can take time, but there are green shoots on the other side.

Experiencing disaster takes a significant toll. The added pressure of being responsible for others – whether they’re family members, friends or people in your community – can make it really hard to find time and space for important self-care. But not doing it can have devastating effects.

Butch lives in Moss Vale, in the New South Wales Southern Highland area. In January 2020, a fire jumped a river and raced towards homes, sandwiching his town between two major blazes. Although he and his family were safe, Butch got a call asking if he would be part of an emergency response team in Batemans Bay.

When he arrived, the town was cloaked in smoke and lit by the red glow of flames.

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The bushfire crisis - our Peer Ambassadors have their say

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Over the past few months, many of us have been affected by the bushfires that are still burning across our country. Be it emergency workers and first responders who've battled the flames, those living in fire affected areas that may have experienced direct loss, or the people that are watching on and inhaling the smoke haze – we've all felt the distress of the bushfire crisis in some way.

Often if you're dealing with upsetting news, it can be helpful to speak to others who are going through the same thing. We reached out to our Peer Ambassadors to ask how the bushfire crisis has affected their mental health, and how they're coping. 

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The effects of bushfires on those living with complex mental health issues

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The constant smoke haze and news reports serve as a reminder of the bushfires that still burn across Australia. Exposure to details and graphic images relating to the fires can be extremely distressing and can have a negative affect on our mental health.

The effects of such devastating events can be even more profound for vulnerable people within our communities, such as those living with complex mental health issues. People living with a mental health issue may find their symptoms return or become more intense during this time. For example, someone living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) might find that graphic images trigger flashbacks to their own trauma.

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The mental health impacts of Australia's bushfire crisis

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For people with a history of trauma, the world can feel like an unsafe place. As bushfires burn across Australia, these feelings can intensify.

The mental health impacts of traumatic events like the bushfire crisis can be huge, and long lasting. For people on the front lines, fighting fires or fleeing their homes, the danger is real and visceral. But for those further removed geographically from the fires, breathing smokey air and reading harrowing media reports can also be extremely distressing and triggering.

Everyone in Australia needs mental health support during this difficult time, and we've already seen many heartwarming examples of people looking out for each other, in the spirit of mateship.

But we must also remember that the impacts of this crisis will ripple out far beyond this moment. We need robust mental health support to be available not just during an emergency, but also well into the future.

For people with a history of trauma or post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), this is particularly important. These people can be incredibly resilient in times of crisis, and often step in to help others in need. But after the worst is over, the delayed impact on them can be significant.

SANE Australia is committed to supporting people navigate the lasting impacts of the bushfire crisis and other traumatic events. 

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