Recovering from Bushfires: Psychological strategies for coping and recovery.

Recovery from Bushfires psychological skills

Bushfires that have threatened and ravished communities in recent weeks have been devastating. The impact will be widely felt for a long time as communities rebuild and recover from the fires. But there are many things you can do to help yourself get through these difficult times. This blog outlines five psychological strategies recommended by the Australian Psychological Society that can help you cope during your recovery from the bushfires. These strategies may also be useful for those who have been indirectly impacted by the bushfires, such as supporting friends and family, community workers and emergency personnel.


  1. Think helpful thoughts

It is expected that one’s mental state of mind is going to be impacted in the aftermath of the bushfires. Beliefs about one’s sense of safety and justice in the world may be challenged. Thoughts about the future may become hopeless. Beliefs in one’s ability to cope may be shattered. If these thoughts are sustained over time, then these thoughts will cause undue additional distress.

Finding ways to think in more helpful ways is therefore an important psychological skill that can assist with your recovery. For example, changing the thought “everything is ruined, how will I ever get out of this” to a more helpful alternative like “this is hard, but I can take one step at a time”, will help provide a positive mindset and a sense of being in control.


  1. Use problem solving

In the aftermath of the bushfires, survivors are faced with a variety of different problems. These range from “where am I going to live”, and “how am I going to rebuild” to “how do I look after the children in these conditions” and relationships may be strained.


This fact sheet by the APS outlines the different steps for problem solving. These include 1) Identify the problem; 2) Assess the problem; 3) Brainstorm solutions; and 4) Adopt a solution.


  1. Coping with emotional distress

Following on from the bushfires, people will experience a wide range of emotions. These may last weeks, months or even for the years to come. Emotions may range from anger to anxiety or maybe even numbness. All these emotions are normal reactions to a stressful situation. There are strategies you can use to help with any distressing emotions you are experiencing.


Firstly, try to identify where in your body you are carrying your stress. For instance, you may feel your muscles in your neck and shoulders are tense, or you may have butterflies in your stomach. Next, name your stress as “this is anxiety” or “this is stress”. Try to understand what triggers your distress. For example, smelling the fires in your belongings may trigger off anxiety and butterflies in your stomach.


The next step is to learn relaxation strategies for your body to relieve muscle tension, and breathing exercises to help calm the nerves. You may practice these on a daily basis and try to use these when distressing emotions overcome you.


Finally you can try to adopt helpful thinking strategies and calming thoughts to soothe the mind and body. Examples are “its OK, I will get through this”, and “breathe and focus on one step at a time”.


  1. Reach out to your social connections

An important step you can take for comfort and reassurance is spending time with loved ones, and other people in the community whom are going through this too. Often, a great sense of community spirit arises from such tragedies and this can help you and your friends get through this challenging time. Try to reach out and make social connections at this time.


  1. Make time for pleasurable activities

In the beginning there will be many tasks to sort out and your ability to find joy in life may be seriously diminished. However, as soon as you can, it is important that you resume recreational activities such as reading, going to hobby classes, spending time with friends, playing board games or whatever it is you use to do.


Spending time on pleasurable activities is a quick way to give back a sense of control, possibly a sense of purpose and value, and will help you to take a break from your daily stresses. Exercise is another great way to release feel good chemicals called endorphins. Even if at first you aren’t able to experience a sense of joy and pleasure, persevere and with time you will see these positive emotions return.


How you can help children recover from bushfires

Children experience the traumatic effects of the bushfires just like adults. However, unlike adults they may struggle to articulate their feelings and experience. It is important that as adults, we watch out for signs of trauma that may indicate your child is struggling to cope.

Signs your child may not be coping include:

  • Sleeping difficulties including nightmares and trouble falling a sleep
  • Irritability, anger or tantrums
  • Problems concentrating at school
  • Being unusually clingy
  • Acting out aspects of their trauma in their play or drawings
  • Withdrawing
  • Fussy eating or loss of appetite
  • Feeling scarred


What you can do to help your child

  1. Offer comfort and reassurance that they are being looked after and are safe. Offer extra hugs and affection at this time.

  3. Find out what your children know and correct any misinformation they may have. Inform children in an age-appropriate manner what is happening around them and in the future so they have a sense that as their parent you have the situation in control.

  5. Listen to what their fears are. Often children’s fears are not based on reality. For example “the fires are going to get me, they are all around me” and this may not be the case. Help children understand what the real risk of harm is and how safe they are. Importantly emphasis that you are looking out for them and you have a plan in place for safety and rebuilding in the future.

  7. Limit exposure to media coverage of the bushfires. Seeing and hearing about the bushfires all over again can re-traumatise children and can cause children to feel like the trauma is happening all over again.

  9. Be mindful of how and what you talk in front of your children. It is best to talk about your worries and concerns away from the listening ears of children. Keeping worries away from children will help to protect the belief that you have your situation in control the best that you can.

  11. Look after yourself as a parent. You will be better situated to help your child if you are also taking care of yourself.


Signs to seek further help

If you or your child feel that your symptoms of distress are persistent and you aren’t’ coping then  please see help from a mental health professional such as a psychologist. As you begin to recover from the bushfires, here are a few signs to watch for that would indicate that you may benefit from speaking with a psychologist:

  • Pre-occupation with the disaster – can’t get thoughts out of your mind
  • Intense feelings of anxiety and distress
  • Persistent irritability and anger
  • An inability to function at work or at school


Where to seek help

If you, your child, or someone you know is struggling, please see your GP for a referral to a psychologist. If you wish to see a  CBT Professionals psychologist then please download our Referral Factsheet here and take it to your GP.

To find a psychologist in your local area you can also us the Australian Psychological Society Find a Psychologist service.


Disclaimer: Content on this website is provided for education and information purposes only and is not intended to replace advise from your doctor or registered health professional. Readers are urged to consult their registered practitioner for diagnosis and treatment for their medical concerns.



Blog written by CBT Professionals Clinical Psychologist on the Gold Coast, Dr Karen Gallaty. CBT Professionals are a team of clinical psychologists on the Gold Coast with offices in Coomera and Nerang. Gold Coast CBT psychologists offer services to adults, children, and couples. Please call and make an appointment on 56 683 490.

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