Coping with disaster – Expert Q&A

Following the magnitude 7.5 earthquake near Kaikoura on Monday morning, people are likely to feel rattled especially during numerous aftershocks.

We asked a psychologist who works in disaster recovery for his tips on coping through this period.

[Note: since this was written, the November 14 earthquake had been upgraded to magnitude 7.8.]

Associate Professor Sarb Johal, School of Psychology, Massey University

How are people likely to be feeling following yesterday’s earthquake and subsequent aftershocks?

“After a complex event like this, where we have had multiple quakes in the night, along with a strong tsunami warning, many people can struggle to make sense of their many thoughts and feelings. Just like the science experts trying to make sense of a complex event, it will take some time.

“It’s important to acknowledge that what we have experienced over the past few days is actually a combination of different events that can have an effect on what are thinking, feeling and doing right now.

  • The initial earthquake shock, subsequent aftershocks, and uncertainty about when the next aftershock will strike
  • The tsunami alerts issued shortly after the initial earthquakes, and people deciding when and how to move to safety if they were at risk
  • The rain and wind that have been experienced in central New Zealand, and flooding and landslips associated with this

“So, it probably isn’t surprising that you might feel a little jumpy and fragile right now, especially if you haven’t slept much, or if traffic and transport problems mean that you’ve also found yourself stranded from familiar surroundings and your loved ones.

“Fear, shock, disbelief, numbness, and disorientation can also be experienced when these unexpected events happen in our lives, especially when they arrive together. While I hesitate to call these ‘normal’ reactions, they are totally understandable and ordinary reaction to extraordinary circumstances. If you’re finding yourself anxious and uncertain right now, and perhaps a little bit frightened, you’re certainly not alone. This doesn’t mean that you’re abnormal, or not coping well.

“We’re all being affected in different ways – for some of us this is a devastating, traumatic event, for others, its an inconvenience. Further details that emerge over the coming days will include science information on the characteristics of the quake and further information concerning the damage to infrastructure, and the impacts on people’s lives as well as implications for New Zealand as a whole, and business income and security at a more micro level. There’s still a lot more to process and that will bring its own challenges.

“Fear tends to calm down reasonably quickly in events like this once you are feeling safe,  but if the aftershocks continue for a while – which they are likely to – then these feelings can persist for some time too.  This also goes for if you’ve been affected by tsunami or flooding evacuations, or are feeling uncertain about the future because of these events.

“It’s important to note though that fear and distress isn’t the same as a mental health disorder. For most people, these experiences are likely to be short-lived and recede relatively quickly.

“We might also feel a bit foggier in the head than usual and not feel as sharp in our thinking. Partly this might be due to interrupted rest and sleep, and having an abnormal number of things to stay on top of. But our brains react chemically to challenging events – releasing adrenaline, which can cause us to feel shaky, queasy or on-edge. This is the flight or fight response. This adrenaline can also make it hard for us to concentrate.

“One of the most important things that will help you feel better is to look after yourself and those around you. That means sleeping as much as you can when you can, eating well and regularly, and connecting with others to receive and give social support. Taking slow, measured breaths through your nose, physical exercise, and reminding ourselves that feeling fearful is to be expected can also be really helpful.

“Remember there will be lots of tired and stressed people around so be even kinder and more patient than usual.”

What advice do you have for coping over the coming days and weeks?

“Look after yourself and your loved ones. Even for those who lived through the Christchurch quake, many say that Sunday night was outside their usual range of experience. You might be left wondering if you’re alone in feeling a complex range of thoughts and feelings, or just feeling scared. You’re definitely not alone.

“There is no simple fix to make things better right away. But there are actions that can help you, your family, and your community heal. Try to:

•    follow a normal routine as much as possible
•    eat healthy meals – be careful not to skip meals or to overeat
•    exercise and stay active
•    help other people in your community as a volunteer – stay busy
•    accept help from family, friends, co-workers, or other people you trust – talk about your feelings with them
•    limit your time around the sights and sounds of what happened – don’t dwell on TV, radio, or newspaper reports on the events.

“There are positive things to focus on too:

•    Supporting one another, especially in the family and in your community
•    Providing emotional support – comforting each other
•    Carrying out practical tasks – tackling the jobs that need to be done a bit at a time and counting each success
•    Sharing your experience and feelings with others – a bit at a time when it is right for you – and having sensitivity for what the listener / audience (e.g. your facebook or social media friends) might be prepared to hear at that time too
•    Looking after your own and your family’s general health – rest, exercise, food and company all help (being careful not to drink too much alcohol).

“Further advice and recommendations can be found at the Ministry of Health website.”

What advice do you have for parents about how to help their children cope?

“Children can feel like their sense of the world being a safe, stable and largely predictable place has been undermined. So, its important to talk about what has happened in terms that your child will understand, when they are ready. Some kids might withdraw, some kids might have a lot of questions, and there are many other reactions. Try to answer the questions, as understanding might help with their processing, but don’t force too much information on them. Try not to expose them to too much incessant imagery or talk about quakes and tsunamis – talk matters, so try to keep a varied diet of that too.

“Fear is sometimes useful because it acts like your body alarm system – and your body is telling you to be alert and ready for action. That might be helpful in trying to explain what is going on in your bodies to children, and why it feels like it does when there is an aftershock.

“Psychological distress isn’t uncommon, and kids might become fearful of things that they haven’t been scared of for years. Their sense of order and predictability in the world may have been undermined such that ordinary things don’t seem so ordinary anymore.

“So stick to routines as much as possible. Try not to make a fuss of the little stuff. Create a sense of warmth and safety, and connectedness – which also means re-engaging with the school routine as soon as buildings and transport networks allow you to.

“Here are some helpful evidence-informed points to remember:

  • Though humour and making light of the quakes might be a good conversation starter, it’s better to tell children what has happened. Give them the facts (but without unnecessary detail) helps prevent their imagination taking over.
  • Encourage them to express emotions. Fear and sadness are their way of coming to terms with what has happened. Hold them or stay with them, offer support while they are upset and then talk about it afterwards.
  • Keep communication open by asking questions to find out what they are thinking or imagining. Tell them how adults feel and what the actions of adults under stress mean. This will prevent children blaming themselves.
  • Reassure them about the future, especially the small details of life which are such an important part of their world.
  • Encourage them to continue to be children, to play, explore and laugh when they want to, even though the adults may not feel like it. Children are often able to take their minds off the event better than adults.
  • Maintain routine and familiarity to help children see that life is secure and predictable.
  • Reduce change of any type to a minimum. When change is necessary, take time to prepare children for it.
  • Keep them informed of how the recovery is going and what to expect.
  • Don’t make this the time to correct bad habits, and don’t overreact to unusual misdeeds or bad behaviour. Talk about the behaviour with the child – they may need to let their tension out somehow.
  • Give children time to sort themselves out with your support. Don’t expect it to be over quickly.
  • Keep track of the child. Remember what they say and do, and try not to let lasting changes in temperament and behaviour creep up without noticing.
  • Make time for just being together. Take time out and re-establish recreational activities and outings as soon as you can. Pleasure is an important part of healing.
  • Re-involve the child in chores and responsibilities as soon as they are ready to cope with them again.
  • Take all their concerns, complaints and questions seriously. They may be trying to express something important which they don’t have the right words for.
  • Parents need to get support to work through their own reactions, so they can help their child. Children’s reactions can be largely informed by observing their parents’ reactions. So ask for the help you need to be the parent your children need you to be in times of challenge.”