How to cope when national disasters hit home

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By psychologist Angie Willcocks

I had planned to write my first column of 2011 about new year's resolutions and goal setting. Writing such a column after the recent devastating floods that led to widespread disaster, destruction and loss of life seems not only crass but also pretty meaningless. 

Of course, it's unlikely that those people directly affected by the floods will be reading this column. It's more likely that they will be absorbed in coping with day-to-day life at this point, and our hearts and minds go out to them as they pick up the pieces of what was their life. May they find the strength to carry on and rebuild.

We all saw the images of the terrible flooding in Queensland: the loss of life, the heart-stopping rescues and, most recently, the amazing community efforts in the big clean-up. The television coverage has made for compelling viewing and I, like many others, have felt a range of emotions including shock and sadness. I've also felt concern about the intrusion of media into the lives of obviously traumatised and shocked people and worried about the impact of such scenes, replayed repeatedly, on the television audience.  We know that people who witness disasters indirectly, such as via television, not only feel sorrow and distress, some go on to experience symptoms of psychological trauma in the days or weeks following.

Symptoms of psychological trauma include:

  • Physical symptoms (bodily signs such as tension, aches and pains, difficulty sleeping and loss of appetite)
  • Cognitive symptoms (thinking signs such as recurrent images popping up unexpectedly, problems concentrating or making decisions and unusually negative or morbid thoughts)
  • Behavioural symptoms (not going to work or not taking part in usual social or sporting interests)
  • Emotional symptoms (feelings such as fear, anxiety, anger and guilt).

In situations where the disaster or traumatic event was not directly witnessed, symptoms associated with the traumatic reaction usually lessen over days to weeks, particularly if the exposure to the traumatic images is stopped or at least reduced and normal activities are resumed. A small percentage of people do develop more long term and serious mental health problems following disasters of this scale. Obviously, those directly affected are more likely to experience ongoing problems and I have no doubt that ongoing and long-term psychological and practical support will be offered to those people. People with a history of previous trauma or pre-existing mental illness are more likely to experience ongoing psychological problems, even if they experienced the disaster indirectly.

The other issue that has concerned me is the general sense of negativity in the air at the moment, with the media pretty constantly letting us know how expensive the cost of living is going to be, how this weather cycle is likely part of a bigger problem ... I even saw an article by someone wondering if all this means that the world is coming to an end! All this talk has me seriously worried about people's mental health - those prone to anxiety and/or depression may find it especially hard to manage their symptoms in the face of all this doomsday talk. It's really important to recognise that we have to look after ourselves and each other and just keep on keeping on.

Here are some tips:

  1. Stick to your usual routine. Keep busy, do what you would usually do and this includes enjoying yourself if possible.
  2. Following on from the tip above, say yes to social invitations or keep up previously organised ones.
  3. Limit your own and your family's exposure to distressing images on television. Repeatedly watching traumatic events does increase the likelihood of you experiencing psychological symptoms.
  4. In my opinion, one of the worst things we can do is allow our minds to dwell on fantasies of playing out specific traumatic incidents that we have all heard or read about. Spending time imagining being stuck in a car in rising flood waters or trying to rescue someone is not only very traumatic and upsetting for you, it also serves no useful or positive purpose. I suspect this sort of 'fantasy' also invites a sense of helplessness  that may prevent us from practical and compassionate action.
  5. Feelings of helplessness in the face of such devastation can be hard to bear. The best antidote for this is to do something. Donate money, clothes or other items. Help clean up if you are nearby affected areas. Volunteer to help someone on your own community.
  6. Avoid using alcohol or other drugs to help you 'block out' whatever is worrying you or getting you down. Talk to someone instead or see the tip above.
  7. Spend time with family or friends who help you feel good. It's very normal for people to want to spend more time with loved ones after incidents like this one - if you are away from your loved ones organise a trip to see them in the not-too-distant future or spend some extra time on the phone or Skype.
  8. Look after yourself physically by eating well, getting enough sleep and taking any medications as prescribed. In the face of such overwhelming devastation, these day-to-day necessities can seem pointless and trivial, but they're not. Life must go on.

It is important that we are mindful, as a community, of keeping an eye on each other in the weeks and months to come. Please contact me here at MiningFM for more information on anything discussed in this column. beyondblue also has more information and resources to assist you with any concerns about how you, or your friends and family are coping. 

To read other columns written by Angie Willcocks during her six years with Mining Family Matters, please click here. And remember that we offer a free email Q&A service with our psychologists, so just click here to ask a question about relationships, parenting or your career. All advice on Mining Family Matters is for general information only and should never be regarded as a substitute for professional health services or crisis services. To talk with a trained volunteer telephone counsellor at any time of the day or night, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. To contact the info line at beyondblue: national depression initiative, phone 1300 22 4636.

Angie Willcocks is a registered psychologist with a private practice in Adelaide – for details about Skype consultations please email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. She’s an expert in tackling issues such as depression, anxiety, postnatal depression, child sleep routines and relationship difficulties. She has a Bachelor of Health Sciences in Psychology and a Masters of Counselling Psychology. She is also the co-author of The Sensible Sleep Solution: a guide to sleep in your baby’s first year, which can be ordered from her website