Managing your mental health and wellbeing during bushfires


We have experienced unprecedented devastation to our land and wildlife, and there has been human cost as well.

The scenes of the devastation looped direct to us from every news source can leave us feeling restless, fearful and perhaps even hopeless. As a large community of staff and students we will have had varying degrees of exposure to the bushfires to date and the uncertainty and unpredictability of this time has affected all of us in some way. This manifests in a number of ways, including breathing poor-quality air, being in the line of the fires or watching the devastation unfold. Psychologically, the impact of the bushfires across so many states concurrently is taking its toll and can in some cases disrupt our daily routine leading to poor sleep, rumination and so on.

In the same way that we plant seeds in the soil in the hope that over time it will sprout, we too can attend to our own seeds. SEEDS is a mnemonic coined by John Arden (2012) which stands for five aspects of our life that we can attend to daily in order to keep mentally, emotionally and physically well. Cultivating these areas particularly during this time of uncertainty, unpredictability and devastation will significantly help us function the best we can. Whether you are directly affected by the bushfires or feel hopeless witnessing the coverage of the destruction, taking steps to maintain and improve your own wellbeing will benefit you and the community around you.

S – Social Connectivity

In these challenging times, spending times with others who care about us is so important. Community support is significant as it provides strength, support and sharing of stories and experiences, which can provide hope. When we experience stress there is a tendency to isolate ourselves, however we have social brain networks that need to be cultivated throughout our lifetime. People who isolate themselves tend to be more depressed, more anxious, get ill more often and get dementia symptoms much earlier than others. Therefore, at this time, reach out to others locally, through your student and staff network, social media or in a way that is meaningful to you.

E – Exercise

Being active helps us function better in all aspects of our lives. Thirty minutes a day results in brain-enhancing biochemical processes, including the birth of new neurons in the brain. Being outside may be difficult at this time if air quality is affected, but nevertheless remaining active is imperative to our wellbeing and enables us to better deal with stress and difficult emotions.

E – Education

Our brain needs to be exercised and when we take time to learn new things or challenge ourselves, we create new pathways for our brain’s connectivity. Limit over-exposure to repetitive and negative reporting from the media at this time. If necessary, be prepared for evacuation in your area and learn what needs to be done.

During difficult times the mind can play tricks on us and loneliness and exhaustion can further impact the harmful effects of negative overthinking. Therefore educating ourselves on new ways of thinking will enable us to function better. We can get caught up in speculating about what might happen. This is difficult to avoid, however it is important we limit pointless speculation over events that we have no control over such as the weather, air quality or other people’s actions.

Speculation is a wasted activity for the most part and adds to feeling exhausted and often inhibits restful sleep. Rather than pointlessly speculating, consider the situation you are speculating about and ponder how you can problem solve it. Do something practical. For example, if you’re worrying about whether you will be able to keep up your mortgage repayments if you’re unable to work, consider whether this is a current problem. If it is, take action in the form of contacting your financial institution and developing a plan that is workable for the immediate future. An example of speculation that may be common at the moment is whether the bushfires will continue. We know this sadly is a current reality, but whether you think about this or not it will not affect the outcome, so therefore it is pointless speculation. Instead, healthy distraction and social support is encouraged.

D – Diet

Nutrition is vital to our brain’s health and efficiency and the more balanced we can keep our diet, the more we’ll see benefit. Our body makes brain chemicals based on the foods that we eat and drink. If you are in a fire-affected area, access to fresh produce may be limited, but eating wholefoods and avoiding processed foods as much as possible at this time will help you think and function better. Excessive drinking of alcohol depletes the body’s resources and causes anxiety and depressive symptoms during the hangover period. Try to limit alcohol consumption at this time.

S – Sleep

functional sleep is a natural deterrent for depression and anxiety. Combining exercise, nutrition and mindfulness can encourage a healthy sleep cycle. A simple mindfulness exercise to practice is honouring your breath and repeating: “I breathe in, and I let my in-breath proceed naturally. I rejoice in the fact that my breathing is there. Breathing in, I know that I am breathing in. Breathing out, I know that I am breathing out. I smile at the out-breath.” (Hanh, 2005, p.5). Continue for one minute and you will instantly feel more relaxed.

Consider your personal SEEDS and contemplate what you can do less of and what you can do more of. As a university, we offer counselling services for students on all campuses. For staff, we have the Employment Assistance Program (EAP) which provides free and confidential counselling. Talking to a counselling professional may provide support and help improve clarity at this difficult time.

Lisa Walsh – BA (Hons); PGCE; MSc; Assoc MAPS

Lisa is the Program Director for Counselling and Community Services and is a qualified teacher and psychologist. She has worked in mental health for many years and is passionate about supporting and educating others in counselling and relational skills in order to foster a better community.

Further information on the psychological impact of natural disasters is available at Lifeline. If needed you can also contact Lifeline: 13 11 14 (available 24/7) or their Online Crisis Support Chat.

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