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This is what people go through in disasters

By John Richardson

The whole range of human emotion is on show right now, sometimes all at once. The very nature of emergency or disaster both takes away some of the boundaries, and sharpens the focus. It is an extreme rollercoaster ride for those caught up in the midst of it, those helping out, and those looking on.

These are, as the saying goes, all normal reactions to abnormal times. When you say this to someone who has been through what they’ve experienced, first there’s a bit of a double take, then a realisation that they are “normal”, and others are experiencing it too. No two people experience the disaster in the same way.

People may cede a level of control over what they are able to do when faced by the emergency. The levels of uncertainty are extreme. This is unusual for us in our daily lives (sure, societal norms and laws stop us from doing certain things), where we make decisions about the clothes we are going to wear that day, the breakfast we are going to have, the people we are going to meet, the places we are going to go.

All this goes out the window in the disaster.

You have the clothes you are wearing, you eat what is in front of you, you are told to go to the evacuation centre, leave town, go to the wharf. You spend time with people you don’t know. And you don’t know what is happening. You don’t know if your house is still standing, your family or friends are alive, or when you are likely to be able to leave.

Hence, we see the emotions of disbelief, fear, anger, sadness, grief, joy, guilt, frustration, helplessness, surprise, shame, euphoria, and hope on display. People have described this to me as sometimes feeling them all at once, or swinging from one emotion to another. They can be sharp or come in waves. Most of these feelings and emotions resolve as certainty returns and control is resumed.

Physical reactions may also rise. Tiredness, lack of sleep, upset stomach, difficulty in concentrating, muscular tension, menstrual changes. This, coupled with the thick smoke can also be concerning.

Relationships may change. They may suffer, or they may strengthen. Between partners, and between parents and children, and between siblings, and between friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. This will all depend on each person’s experiences and the decisions that were made during and after the emergency.

For many communities already in NSW and SA, they have been under threat since early November. Other communities will now feel that. This leads to a different type of fatigue. We saw this in the Alpine communities back in 2003, when the fires burnt for 60 days, and each night advanced down the slopes to threaten towns, only to retreat during the day. People spoke about the feeling of siege, of life during wartime, of wanting some resolution, "just let it burn."

Being under threat at a heightened state of alert becomes exhausting, tiredness sets in, decision-making becomes poorer, a focus on the detail, rather than the bigger picture. It’s important to recognise this form of stress, and address it early on.

Once it becomes entrenched, it can take months to resolve. Have a plan that recognises that you may be under threat for months. This is about how you might take advantage of milder weather, can you get away, can someone look after the property, what are the triggers to go back into alert mode? Think through all of this, and plan.

The disaster movies always show people panicking. Panic is a rare event, and usually manifests when people see that there is no route or hope of escape. Sure, there is high anxiety, but this generally manifests as focused, purposeful activity. We’ve seen, despite the extraordinary threat, the positive behaviours of people under threat. The clear and unambiguous advice being given to people, the calm sense of direction and control shown by the emergency services commissioners and premiers, as well as the emergency services on the ground contribute to this. As Rob Gordon would say, treat people as rational adults and they will behave that way.

There are many simple things people can do to reduce the stress. Being active and doing things help with a sense of control (although be mindful of not being hyperactive). Being with people and talking it through is good. Doing things that you like doing is important. Getting exercise and maintaining a balanced diet (there is a temptation to hit the comfort food in these situations) and in that, share meals with people, the power of food is extraordinary. Limit the use of stimulants, again there is the temptation to hit the booze, start smoking again, just to take away the stress or the pain. You don’t need me to tell you this is not a good development. Get rest and sleep.

As the person who is the listener, this may be a difficult role. “I don’t know what to say.” Most often you don’t have to say anything, just listen, and reflect back to people what they are saying, and don’t say things that minimise their experience.

Some useful things to say or do are:

  • Acknowledge their situation (e.g. “It’s really tough to go through something like this”, “This is such a tough time for you”)
  • Try to put yourself in their shoes. Don’t interrupt, don’t offer examples from your own life, and don’t talk about yourself.
  • Avoid simple reassurances like “I know how you feel”, “You’ll be OK”, “You just need to get on with it” or “Others are doing it hard too”.
  • Ask leading questions like, “You’ve had a rough time, how are you going?” You might ask how the emergency is impacting others…“How’s xx going?” And then ask, “And how are you travelling?”
  • Show you understand by feeding back what they are saying. Try starting with something like “You seem really..”, “It sounds like..”, “No wonder you feel..”

Being cognisant of children’s needs and reactions is very important. Their understanding of what is happening is different to yours. There may be reversion of behaviours, acting out. It’s important to include them in discussions about what happened, and encourage them to express their feelings. It’s also important to encourage them to play and be with friends, particularly if they are teenagers.

Also be mindful of people who have a cognitive disability or experience anxiety and depression, the events may upset routines that they have, and coping strategies they have in place, and this can exacerbate behaviours or symptoms.

And, of course, you can prepare yourself for disaster. We have seen that it can happen to anyone, anytime, anywhere. Download our Get Ready App and do your preparedness. It’s easy and doesn’t take much time, and can make you feel much more in control.

In Psychological First Aid, we talk about this as look, listen, link. If people appear to be struggling, then you can link them into services. “It might be worth chatting to your doctor about this.”

These are extraordinary times, with extraordinary responses. People are resilient, and most, with the help of friends and family, will manage through, so that it becomes one of those extraordinary events that forms part of their life’s fabric. For those that have their life’s fabric shifted, that’s what we are here for, to help navigate so that people recover to live a life that they value living.

John Richardson is National Resilience Adviser at Australian Red Cross. This is an edited version of the article “This what people go through” published on John's blog Sastrugi, 5 January 2020.