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Q & A Today: Dealing with Stress of Multiple Disasters

Updated: Jan 20, 2022

Posted on June 7, 2020

Even an everyday kind of superhero requires self care too.

Welcome to Q&A Today, the fourth edition of a new column designed to answer your questions regarding challenges and concerns in everyday life, from family to coping with current events. A popular topic today revolves around the coronavirus. All questions are fair game. Just send me an email with your questions or concerns, and watch for the answer in upcoming editions of the Tasmanian Times. Q&A Today is published on the first and third Sundays of the month. If your question is printed, only your first name will appear in this column.

Q: I am a firefighter. As you know, last year’s fire season was horrendous. I didn’t think it could get much worse than what first responders and residents had to endure. Now I’m concerned about the risk of future fires occurring simultaneously with this pandemic. Although I try to not think about something that hasn’t even yet happened, I find myself getting sick more often, sleeping poorly and worrying about being able to perform my duties.

Thanks in advance. – Jack

A: Hi Jack,

Even an everyday kind of superhero requires self care too.

I assure you that you are not alone with these concerns. Australia went through the most destructive bushfire season in history. Chronic exposure to traumatic events can have a lasting effect. Even under ordinary times one could expect it to take quite some time to process the impact the brutal year had on you. But this double whammy of having the coronavirus pandemic arise only weeks after the bushfires were resolved may be preventing you from getting the needed break between these two disasters. You need time to return to a normal life balance, and as you know, bouncing back from the stressful fire season isn’t easily accomplished.

As a firefighter, you spend your career compassionately focusing on the needs of the community, putting yourself at risk and toughing out difficult situations. It may feel more comfortable for you to be the one to provide help to others rather than to be the one asking for help. But these are unprecedented times. It is important to realise that the realities of the bushfires and pandemic are in a league of their own. The stress and pressure of both hardships is a lot to handle. You can’t expect to just “suck it up” and move on as you did before.

To try to minimise or ignore the stress you have encountered could result in these situations negatively impacting your thinking, physical well-being or emotions. Don’t worry about appearing weak to others. You’re human and therefore capable of hurting deeply. Researcher Brene Brown points out that vulnerability helps us to learn and move forward in life. Without vulnerability we wouldn’t be able to be creative and learn new ways of coping because we feared risking failure. It takes courage to be vulnerable, and in doing so we can learn how to move through uncertainty and make changes in our lives that make us happy.

So instead of pushing away from worry and sleep disruptions and trying to move on too quickly, I encourage you to pause to recognise and honour your legitimate feelings during these rough times. Recognise that while these feelings of anxiety are normal there is a point at which your body is letting you know that enough is enough! Our head is connected to other parts of our body in ways we don’t always consider. Sometimes when we worry about something bad happening, or feel unsafe, we experience the negative feelings as you described with lack of sleep, excessive worrying and an increased susceptibility to getting sick.

I encourage you to identify healthy coping strategies that will help address your concerns, such as ensuring you do not isolate from others. We can enhance our resilience and be better able to find balance in our lives knowing that we are not alone. This is supported by research, which has found that people with good emotional support systems have stronger immune systems and less depression.

Consider connecting to others with whom you feel comfortable and don’t have to wear an external mask of stoicism and strength. Tap into the support of others at the firehouse. Your colleagues – both male and female – most probably share similar experiences and can help you process your feelings unique to working in an unique work environment.

Friends and family will provide a sense of support and belonging and ideas on how to cope with some situations. They can provide a buffer from the high work-related stress, reminding you of the joys and good things going on in your life and what you have to look forward to.

By changing your perspective and focusing on the parts of your life you enjoy and for which you are grateful, you’ll be less likely to allow your emotional pain get the better of you. You will realise that you have much control over your life, which will help you avoid the sense of powerlessness that can make you feel like a victim; unable to make changes in your life and thereby experience greater suffering.

If the disruption to your emotional and physical well-being continues, I suggest you reach out to a mental health professional who can be beneficial in helping you find a way of managing your feelings and help you learn and grow so that you can find your inner strength and resilience.

Wishing you well.


Eileen S. Lenson, MSW, ACSW, BCC is author of Overcoming Adversity: Conquering Life’s Challenges, by Australian Academic Press. Eileen is a life and business coach and public speaker residing in the United States. She has spent her professional career working in medical and psychiatric hospitals and in her private practice, counselling people experiencing emotionally traumatic events.

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If you have specific concerns or a situation in which you require professional, psychological or medical help, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified specialist. The opinions or views expressed in this column are not intended to treat or diagnose; nor are they meant to replace the treatment and care that you may be receiving from a licensed professional, physician or mental health professional.

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