We’ve all had a traumatic experience with the bushfires early in 2020. No-one who lived through this can have escaped without some level of emotional disturbance. For many, this experience has been profound.
Trauma is not what happens to us, but how our bodies respond to what happens to us. Many of us will need support to help digest and integrate this experience.
Trauma is an embodied experience. That is, we feel it inside our bodies. You might have noticed some of the signs, such as feeling withdrawn or maybe tense and uptight. Perhaps you noticed your breathing has been shallow, or you felt a bit light-headed.
Releasing the Tension
Most of us are talking things through, sharing our experiences with friends and family. In fact, it’s impossible to visit a local coffee shop and not be aware of surrounding conversations about personal experiences with the fires.
Others have spoken about finding something to laugh at. This is a great way to release stored tension. There are many other ways that we can allow ourselves to “exhale”, or breathe out, and become more relaxed. Movement-based therapies can often be more helpful than talking alone. Psychotherapy, yoga and art therapy come to mind.
How Psychotherapy can help
A psychotherapist can help you to process and integrate your experience. The aim of psychotherapy is to help you to explore the “roots” or underlying issues of a disturbance. It is quite possible that your reaction to the recent traumatic experience is touching on past traumas that have not been addressed previously. This can cause a heightened reaction.
You might like to explore some of the emotions you experienced… the fear, uncertainty and helplessness, or perhaps the sensations, the sights, sounds, and smells. Maybe, like me, you were deeply moved by seeing a strike force of fire trucks and water tankers go past. The depth of my gratitude to these people and their skills is impossible to express in words.
What does it mean to be “triggered”?
It is likely that seemingly everyday events will cause our emotional wounds to be touched and awakened. For many of us, just driving along well known roads through burnt bush can bring us to tears. This is OK, and we need to be gentle with ourselves, acknowledging this as part of our healing process.
I thought I was OK
I hadn’t realised the extent to which I was experiencing a trauma response until I contacted my therapist for some supervision about another issue. As I messaged her to book an appointment, I found myself describing my experiences of living in the midst of the bushfire crisis. This was unusual, as I normally just send a quick text.
Later that morning, I was surprised to find myself becoming teary when I was at the beach. The gentle rocking of the waves gave a sense of being held, and the rhythmic movement was calming. Simply sharing aspects of my experience with someone I trusted, and who was able to really listen, seemed to have helped me to release tension I didn’t realise I had been holding onto.
I find the tears can surface without warning. This happens with activities that I once took for granted, such as driving along the highway from Moruya to Batemans Bay. Seeing the destruction of the bush, with glimpses of destroyed homes, is very emotionally triggering.
Benefit of Seeing a Psychotherapist
My therapist is someone with whom I have been speaking for several years. As a result, she knows me very well. Because I trust her, I have been able to open up and safely share some very deeply withheld emotions. As the session progressed, the release of stored tension came as big yawns, and very deep breaths. And yes, there were tears.
I realised that although I had been paying attention to my breathing, and focussing on taking deep breaths into my belly, with slow exhalations, this breathing alone had not been enough. It took the presence of a skilled and understanding therapist to help me to really “breathe out”, exhaling slowly, releasing the tension that I had been holding in my body.
Healing happens in relationship with someone we trust, with whom we can feel safe and secure. With her help, I was able to allow emotions to surface. In this way the experience could be processed and integrated into memory.
Following the session, I have a sense of release, as though my ribcage can now open up, and I can breathe deeply. I feel more relaxed, and the deep weariness is no longer present.
Ripples on a Pond
The impact of the bushfires may extend to your wider circle of family and friends, a bit like ripples on a pond. While we were out of touch with the rest of the world, they were watching horrified. They saw the pictures on the news and knew more about what was happening than we often did. It’s quite possible that these friends and family members would also benefit from some therapeutic support.
I was talking recently to my daughter who lives interstate. During the crisis we had been in contact when possible. I hadn’t realised the extent of her concern until she shared this story. She had gone to a local park with a friend to do some drawing. As she allowed herself to draw freely, to her great surprise, an image of a bushfire emerged from her subconscious.
Art as Therapy
This story reminded me of the benefits of art as a therapy. This is a great way to slow down your breathing, while being “held” in a place of safety and trust. I have used a simple experience of water colours on wet paper with clients. As they immersed themselves into the experience of watching the colours flow, with no specific intention of creating “art”, they found their breathing naturally slowed.
From here, you may feel motivated to talk through your experiences, but there is no compulsion to do so.
One recent participant commented “I would highly recommend this to everyone. Even hubby, although initially apprehensive, really enjoyed the experience”.
Your emotional reaction might not be immediate, and you may find yourself feeling more easily stressed in the coming weeks and months. If this happens, it is OK to ask for help.