Overcoming emotional trauma after an earthquake
To think about the immense destruction and loss caused by the recent earthquakes which have been shaking the grounds of Nepal and other proximal territories is in itself sufficient to send a shiver down one’s spine. Moreover, the impact of such natural disasters pervades beyond the physical destruction directly caused by the event. But the emotional, psychological and psychosocial consequences also tend to take a huge toll. These could lead to a range of experiences of confusion, as well as intensely frightening emotions. The initial shock can make the person feel emotionally numb, feeling a sense of disbelief, anger, guilt, grieving the losses, and might also lead to experiencing nightmares for a time period post the traumatic event.
Such an untoward incident not only threatens the lives of the people, but also increments a sense of danger and insecurity amongst individuals, thereby making us feel vulnerable towards such traumatic experiences. The unexpectedness and suddenness of such incidents only adds to the overwhelming sense of helplessness and deprivation experienced.
While the after effects of an earthquake would require time to clear the rubble, rescue survivors, and repair the physical damage caused, similarly the individuals need some time to be allowed to recover and balance their emotional equilibrium, accept and cope with their losses, re-adjust to their surroundings, and rebuild their life accordingly. The devastation caused to the familiar surroundings and environment could be extremely distressing and such feelings tend to be quite long-lasting as well. To add to this, there are the burdens of financial, familial, social as well as occupational losses which need to be coped with.
In addition to providing shelter and basic necessities for the homeless victims, a psychological rehabilitation to help the survivors and their families deal with the after effects of the traumatic incident is of utmost importance. However, there is no standard recipe to help in such a psychological rehabilitation of people affected by trauma, as each individual would react to and deal with the same situation in their own unique manner.
Time is the greatest healer, and all individuals who have been victimized or even witnessed a traumatic event should be allowed to take time to breathe, to let what has happened sink in, and to allow themselves to feel sad, to mourn, or to react to their losses. We should be reassured that it is normal to experience such reactions given the nature of the traumatic incident, and we must not blame ourselves for feeling this way. Further, instead of trying to push it away and evade such topics, we do need an opportunity to discuss our traumatic experiences. Remember, ignoring the way one feels is less likely to let them pass away, instead of allowing yourself to feel what you feel. The persons should be allowed such a time and space wherein they can safely express themselves and gain the support and acceptance from others around them.
Dealing with a disaster could lead to relocation, and the survivors need to be provided with adequate psychological and social support to help them re-adjust to their new surroundings. Efforts should be made to get back to the routine that was being followed prior to this event. Having an idle mind is likely to rekindle distressing thoughts and memories, so it is better to keep yourself as occupied as you can. Also, coping with a natural disaster might require you to take some major life decisions related to your career or family life. However, don’t pressure yourself to make these decisions, give yourself time and space to adjust and cope with the present situation before you plan for the future.
In the aftermath of a natural disaster, it is important to help the survivors build their resilience and develop their coping mechanisms to overcome the traumatic experience. In addition, such an event can help the people develop their altruistic nature, by helping in rescuing or comforting other victims. Such pro-social behaviour in the long run can help improve the individual’s sense of self-worth, thereby helping them learn and grow from the experience.
Specifically for earthquakes, the repetitive tremors as aftershocks which persist after the main incident elongate the traumatic experience, as these aftershocks do not have a clearly defined end point. Moreover, as such disasters rarely give a warning, it becomes all the more sudden, unexpected and leaves the people unprepared in anticipation. This furthermore adds limitations to their ability to make psychological adjustments to facilitate coping. The inability to predict and prepare oneself for the disaster makes one feel a lack of sense of control over the situation.
The psychological consequences need not be restricted to the individuals present at the site of the disaster, as those who were not actually a part of the disaster might also experience a sense of vulnerability as they witness the effects of the disaster. It is important for such people not to ruminate about the event, and not to watch the news footage repeatedly, as it will only add to your stress. Take a break, and keep things in perspective. If you were unscathed by the event, you might blame yourself or feel guilty. Such a reaction is normal, and it is important for you to remember the relief that you are safe, while also feeling empathetic towards others who need your help. Remember, certain events are unavoidable, and the damage caused cannot be undone. So do not blame yourself for what happened, and instead focus on what is within your control, which you can actually do to help others and your own physical and psychological well-being.
While providing professional psychological support for the victims and their relatives is of undeniable importance, at the same time we should remember to also help the persons build on their inner strengths in order to prepare for the process of recovery. To provide our support, we need not be psychologists, but can simply be patient and understanding, help the person to socialize and relax, and offer your support by being available when the person wants to talk.