When we experience a stressful or traumatic event, there are a range of emotions and reactions that can occur immediately and over the following weeks and months.
These are natural reactions to an extraordinary event, and signs that our defence system is activated in helping us respond.
These emotions can include anxiety, anger, fear or grief. Our reactions can put us into activation – where we implement plans and make decisions – or shutdown, where we withdraw and find it difficult to concentrate or make decisions.
Along with these reactions, the mind and body store a memory of the experience. This memory is designed to help us be better prepared for any future stressors with the aim of reducing threats to safety.
As we approach Summer, and conditions similar to those experienced during the Black Summer fires, it is common for memories to be triggered. When memories are triggered, the body prepares to respond, and the defence system is activated.
The activation of our defence system can include increased thoughts about past experiences, higher awareness of possible dangers in your environment, increased motivation to manage risks, and stronger desire to connect with community support. This can help you prepare for and manage possible threats to safety.
The defence system can also become activated in a way that leads to difficulties. This includes increased anxiety, hypervigilance, disruption in sleep, difficulties concentrating or making decisions, outbursts of anger or irritability, withdrawing from friends and family, or intrusive recall of distressing images. When the defence system is activated like this, we need to regulate it in order to maintain our wellbeing and move to having a response that is helpful and adaptive.
How to improve your wellbeing when memories are triggered
To regulate the defence system and ensure we have helpful and adaptive responses, there are three key strategies we can implement:
Connecting with others is the most effective way to regulate the defence system. Connection triggers a range of neurochemical processes that calm the stress response and produce a sense of safety and an adaptive response.
Physical activity is linked with improving sleep, alertness and concentration, plus it increases the release of neurochemicals described as the fertilisers of the brain. Physical activity helps the body and mind be in the best position to manage day to day in a helpful manner.
Mindfulness, or participating in activities that keep your attention in the present moment, relaxes the area of your brain responsible for triggering a stress response. These activities calm the stress response and allow focus on the current environment rather than on past experiences, helping to give control over your reactions.
Ellana Iverach is a psychologist at Fortem Australia
Fortem’s Psychology Support is a free service for first responder families. Find out more here.