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Mental Health Considerations for the Australian Bushfire Crisis: The difference between Traumatic Stress and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

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The recent bushfires have certainly been a traumatic time for our country. Over 5million hectares of land have been scorched, destroying thousands of homes and killing over 20 humans and almost 50 billion wildlife. For those directly affected by the bushfires, the damage is not limited to the loss of loved ones, possessions or community – mental health and emotional wellbeing can also be negatively impacted. Disastrous events such as this can influence certain emotions, feelings and thoughts, which can be challenging to deal with. Although some of these responses are normal, it is important to notice when your mental health is at risk so that you can seek additional support. In this month’s blog, I will explore the difference between normal responses to trauma, known as Traumatic Stress and a more serious clinical diagnose, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). After reading this blog, you should understand the difference between the two so that you can identify whether yourself or someone else should seek psychological support in light of these traumatic events.

The bushfires are likely to cause people (both directly and indirectly affected) to suffer from Traumatic Stress symptoms. Traumatic Stress is considered a common, normal response to experiencing a traumatic or stressful event (such as a car crash, or a natural disaster). Most people who experience a scary situation will show some signs of Traumatic Stress. This is because the ‘fight-or-flight’ response kicks in when we experience something that is mentally or physically terrifying. The fight-or-flight response is triggered by the release of hormones that prepare our bodies to either stay and deal with a threat (fight) or to run away from a threat for safety (flight). This response pumps more blood and oxygen into the body, causing us to tense our muscles and breathe faster. Other symptoms include shaking, sweating and feelings of nervousness. The fight-or-flight response is a normal, and usually temporary, survival response experienced during and sometimes after, a traumatic event, which is why Traumatic Stress is considered a normal reaction and not a mental illness.

Traumatic Stress differs from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a clinically diagnosed condition. It is a group of stress reactions that can develop after we witness a traumatic event, or series of events, such as a death or serious injury. PTSD can affect people who are a victim of the event, a witness of the event happening to someone else, or even learn about an event that has happened to a close family member or friend. It is still unclear why some people develop PTSD while others don’t.

Although Traumatic Stress and PTSD share similar symptoms, that main distinction is the intensity of the PTSD symptoms. PTSD symptoms are more severe and persistent, often interfering with day to day functioning. PTSD symptoms also last for a longer length of time (i.e. over a month), while Traumatic Stress Symptoms are usually temporary.

People with PTSD often experience a reliving of the traumatic event (i.e. through nightmares or flashbacks). During this time, some of the Traumatic Stress symptoms outlined above may be experienced in the body again, as if they are experiencing the traumatic event again firsthand. People with PTSD may also engage in avoidant behaviours, such as avoiding situations or people that remind them of the event. For example, if someone has experienced a traumatic car crash, they may avoid driving or even getting into a car. PTSD can also cause people to feel anxious for long periods of time, even when there is no potential threat close by. People with PTSD may also turn to coping strategies, such as alcohol or drugs, to distract themselves from their symptoms.

If you believe that you, or someone you know, is experiencing PTSD, the best treatment is to seek psychological support. PTSD is a medically diagnosed condition that should be treated by a clinician. However, therapy is for everyone, so if you feel like you are not coping due to a traumatic event, or would like more information, then please contact the clinic.

Drop of Life is offering no gap sessions for people directly affected by the bushfire crisis. If you believe that your mental health has been affected by the recent bushfires, then please do not hesitate to contact our clinic to book in with one of our psychologists.

Sources:

Beyond Blue (2019). Retrieved from www.beyondblue.org.au.

Bender, J (2013). Retrieved from www.brainline.com.

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