On the anniversary of the Black Saturday bushfires, psychologists are advising the community to anticipate their reactions and plan their weekend to help cope with this significant event.
President of the Australian Psychological Society (APS), Professor Bob Montgomery, said that anticipating what the anniversary might be like, how you might feel, and how you would like to spend the day are effective ways to prepare yourself psychologically.
"It's common for the anniversary of traumatic events to trigger some bad memories and rub some salt into emotional wounds. Successful psychological recovery after a disaster does not mean survivors don't care any more. It means they have been able to work through the normal healing process so that the distress of the event no longer intrudes into their ability to lead a normal, happy life. But they will still feel some understandable distress when reminded of the event and that's what anniversaries do, especially one that is goingto be marked like this one," Professor Montgomery said.
"Quite often, people choose to attend public anniversary memorials or establish their own commemorative rituals, like planting a tree. Others allow themselves to do nothing special, or to do practical things that give them a sense of progress twelve months on. Do what's right for you and know that everyone copes in their own way.
"One of the most human of characteristics is that we are all different, that quite normally we will have different reactions to traumatic events and benefit from different forms of help. Survivors facing an anniversary or other reminder of a disaster should decide for themselves what their best personal plan is for coping with the inevitable jogging of memories. For some, it will be attending community or group events, getting back in touch with the sense of community belonging and support that has been an important part of their recovery. But for others, it may be seeking solitude or the supportive company of just one or two special companions. No one should feel obliged to endure a commemoration that will be unhelpfully distressing."
Research shows that the majority of disaster survivors will heal themselves in the weeks and months after the event without needing specialised help, just basic emotional, social and practical support. However, around 20 per cent will struggle to recover unless they do receive professional, evidence-based psychological support.
"Unfortunately we know that there will be a sizable minority of survivors who have not yet been able to lay their bad memories to rest, who are still struggling with the psychological aftermath of Black Saturday. They may still be having flashback memories, nightmares, disturbed sleep, heightened anxiety and nervousness, anger or depression. For them, the revisiting of the event will be extra stressful. We encourage anyone in this situation to recognise it's a sign that they should get some professional help," Professor BobMontgomery said.
Some useful tips for coping with the Black Saturday anniversary include:
"Let's not forget, this anniversary can also be a time of optimism for some, as they see how far their recovery efforts have taken them and take heart in their community's resilience," Professor Montgomery said.
The APS has a range of resources on coping with disaster and psychological preparedness as well as other relevant tip sheets. To access these, go to www.psychology.org.au.
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The APS is the largest professional association for psychologists in Australia, representing more than 17,500 members. The APS is committed to advancing psychology as a discipline and profession. It spreads the message that psychologists make a difference to peoples' lives, through improving psychological knowledge and community wellbeing.