Making sense of disaster - transcript

Welcome, my name is Leanne Humphreys and we’re speaking here with Professor David Forbes who’s the Director of Phoenix Australia.

Hello David, thanks for joining me how are you?

David: I’m good thank you.

Leanne: Good. David as well as having an international reputation as an academic throughout your career you’ve also worked as a clinician. And you’re a clinical psychologist who’s really passionate about the use of evidence-based interventions and you’ve worked with a large number of people who’ve been through some incredibly traumatic experiences. You’ve helped them process those experiences and arrive at a different place, so today I’d like to talk with you about what it means to make sense of a disaster. David what is processing and why do we need to do it?

David: Look thanks Leanne. Because disasters are often some horrifying, potentially tragic events that can be overwhelming to think about, experience, and also the challenge our fundamental sense of the world as a predictable and controllable place. And as human beings, we need to understand our world and the events that occur within them and when these experiences aren’t sorted through in our minds or processed, the stress associated with them can often get worse.

So kind of attempts to process or make sense of a disaster experience involves recalling the memories of the disaster, reflecting on these thoughts and feelings that the memories bring with them, and trying to make sense of them. And being able to think about them within, eventually, without feeling overwhelmed by them. People often do this naturally on their own or in conversations with family, friends or colleagues at work.

Leanne: Okay, so that sounds like it can be quite a difficult and sometimes overwhelming process. What what can get in the way of that?

David: Well exactly as you say, you know, recalling these events can be very distressing and for some people they’ll feel overwhelmed by that process and prefer to avoid it.

What else can get in the way, is sometimes memories of the disaster events can be quite fragmented and kind of difficult to recall in an organized sequence. And that kind of presents an even greater challenge really in terms of making sense of the event. And so to reduce distress and to prevent it from worsening, some individuals kind of find it helpful to employ strategies to assist with their processing of the disaster memories.

Leanne: What kinds of strategies can help?

David: So commonly as I mentioned people can often process it on their own in their thoughts and in conversations with friends, but also potentially through writing for example using a journal. Sometimes people need to, we need to actively assist people or facilitate someone to process the event and the indicators for when we need to actively assist them are when the distress associated with experience, if the disaster is too frequent, or too intense, or last for too long. Or when the distress associated with the event doesn’t seem to be subsiding over the course of that matter of days, or weeks. Or when the distress escalates and begins to interfere with everyday life.

And some of the strategies we talk about in assisting people with processing, includes the potential as I mentioned to start to, where they can themselves, or indeed we can assist them in systematically starting to write about what happened to, journal around what happened, but where the intrusive memories are too strong, persist or overwhelming and the diagnosis of PTSD or acute stress disorder might be made, uh use of trauma focus from the behaviors therapy interventions, like prolonged exposure, like cognitive processing therapy or EMDR, can be really important interventions for helping people systematically process where those diagnoses are being considered.

Leanne: Okay, I really like that David. You made a distinction there between the kinds of things that people can do naturalistically so thinking about things talking to friends using their normal kind of coping and strategies and their normal supports but then there might also be times that processing can happen in the context of a more structured therapeutic relationship absolutely particularly where those problems persist and don’t subside naturally over the course of the first few days or weeks.

Leanne: Okay thanks very much David, that’s really helpful. For those of you watching this presentation please feel free to explore the materials and resources on the page.

Thanks David.

David: Thank you