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From Bushfire Disasters to Persistent Pain, Resilience and its role in recovery

It seems almost inevitable that the recent bushfire crisis in Australia will change not only the landscape, but also us, as both a society and as individuals, forever. For many of us, sitting at home, images of devastation have transfixed us; the crisis appeared acute, intense and short-lived. The potentially chronic problems engendered by the cumulative stress associated with adversity were hidden from view. For those individuals, families and communities affected, however, recovery to a ‘new normal’ will be a challenge, and the pain revolution message is of great relevance to recovery from the grief, depression and pain that can be generated.

Life experiences such as bushfires, disasters, accidents, assaultive violence or persistent pain can challenge our sense of safety, or, as we say, they can tip the scales between safety in me (SIMS) and danger in me (DIMS). Want to find our more about DIMs and SIMs – check out this blog. One skill central to restoring the balance between danger and safety is the notion of resilience. Being resilient does not mean that the adversity or pain is not bothersome, or that you should 'learn to live with it'; but rather it means that you have acquired a set of skills that help you to live life and regain mental health, despite experiencing adversity.

Prior to the work on resilience and its role in recovery, much of the research on adverse life events had a reverse focus. Instead of looking at areas of strength and growth, it looked at areas of vulnerability, investigating the experiences that make people susceptible to poor life outcomes. Persistent pain sufferers can battle the same reverse focus, for example 'normal age-related changes' found on a scan can lead to negative expectations/predictions about a person’s prognosis (for example, someone may see a scan and make a statement such as 'you'll be in a wheelchair in 10 years') or about their pain (for example; 'that must hurt'). Learning the skills of resilience can offer protection against some of the effects of negative expectations that often accompany adversity.  

Resilience is multi-faceted, and can be worked on in a number of ways. Here is a sample of some general psychological strategies from the Australian Psychological Society to help you to cope, recover and grow.

  1. Helpful Thinking: Bushfire crises - just like pain - can shift the way we think about ourselves, the world and the future to a negative focus. Human beings are capable of worry and rumination: we can take a thought and run through it over and over in our minds, until all we can see is the negative outcome.  You can foster resilience by learning to interact with your thinking and emotions a little differently; to become more flexible and develop new ways of responding help you move and grow. For example, in the face of this disaster; how and what can I learn from this tragedy, so that when negative events occur in the future, I am able to adapt in a positive way? How can I be prepared so I may be a little more protected from future risk? Or what can I change that was a problem before? Outlining and working through questions such as these can help to create a sense of active decision making and feeling ‘in control’ once again.
  2. Managing emotional distress: It is important to remember that distressing reactions are a normal part of recovery, and finding safe ways of expressing feelings is an important part of healing.  Learning how to identify, understand, anticipate and effectively manage these reactions so they don’t feel so overwhelming is something everyone can benefit from.  Identify the triggers to distress that are reminders of the trauma, but see what is different and focus on this difference. Also, remember that you are now safe.
  3. Taking time for social connections and pleasurable activities: Recovering from bushfires and pain can leave you feeling tired and stressed. Daily life can become a struggle with disruption to the normal routines and activities that give us pleasure or a sense of control.  One of the best things we can do for ourselves is to spend time with people who care about us and to feel the social support of friends, family and the community, to reconnect.  Taking time out to re-engage with previously enjoyable and pleasurable activities is a way of building feelings of control and re-gaining a sense of purpose.
  4. Problem Solving: Following disasters like the bushfires (or navigating life with persistent pain) you may find yourself struggling with a variety of problems in this new altered environment that can leave you feeling helpless.  Learning the four steps to problem solving can help regain a sense of confidence that you can cope and better communicate when you need to ask for help. The challenge is to find where you can take control and manage the risk.

For more information on resilience and recovery from the trauma of bushfires, please visit the Australian Psychological Society bushfire recovery tip page, here.

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