Research shows that the way natural disasters impact on us is dependent on a whole range of factors, not just the event. Prior to the earthquakes we all had our own set of issues including: day-to-day stress (which is healthy and keeps us engaged in the activities we need to do) and cumulative stress (which is a build up of day-today stresses that places a heavy burden on us and needs to be worked through). Where we were during the earthquake, whether we felt safe or were isolated from our loved ones all impacts on the level of traumatic stress – the change to routines, lifestyle, priorities, employment and housing – all contribute to our ongoing levels of stress.
It’s important to assess how we are now responding to our usual day-to-day stresses. Are we coping with them as well as we once did? Have we got an increase in cumulative stress? Are we on edge and having flashbacks or nightmares related to the earthquakes?
It is normal to be experiencing increased stress levels as a result of the ongoing quakes. However, in terms of our long-term health we need to put in place strategies to help us manage this increased stress. One of the best ways to do this is to re-define what a normal day now looks like and create new routines based on our ‘new realities’ rather than holding on to ‘old’ routines. This might mean leaving for work 20 minutes earlier, your children going to swimming on a different night or doing the housework twice a week rather than four in acknowledgment that you are tired and not sleeping as well. Routine helps us to set up a ‘new normal.’ It may seem simple, but it’s a positive way to involve the whole whānau in a decision-making process that helps move forward.
Make sure you don’t become isolated – keep in touch with those you care about. Do things as a whānau that are fun and involve some laughter, things that celebrate life and that bring joy. This is especially important when you have children.
How do we know whether we are coping?
Throughout our lives we learn lessons from our teachers, parents, whānau, television and other resources. We develop a predictable script for our lives, so we know how to respond when an event happens. However when the first and subsequent quakes hit very few people had a script for dealing with them. Our brains went into overload about how to make sense of this new ‘thing’ in our lives while trying to carry on with usual daily activities. For many it also caused our bodies to undergo some physiological changes including increased heart rate, increased breathing, slowed digestion and decreased flow of saliva.
Forgetfulness, feeling tired and not able to accomplish as much in a day are usual physical and cognitive responses to trauma. Therefore we need to look after our body by exercising more, healthy eating and avoiding overusing substances like drugs and alcohol that further impair our functioning. We also need to take care of our minds, by taking time out for ourselves, resting and ensuring we don’t increase risk-taking behaviour (e.g. driving faster, inappropriate sexual liaisons, buying unnecessary items).
As whānau we need to talk about stories of resilience not victimisation – what has kept us together, what has supported our safety – and if it happens again what is our plan. This not only supports adults but helps children to feel safe and confident that any future quakes will not affect them to the same extent.
How do you know if you need to seek help?
If you or someone in your whānau isn’t feeling confident about establishing new routines or that there are ongoing physical and psychological impacts making it difficult for you to move forward, it is really important to talk with a professional about how you are feeling. The usual first place to go to is your GP who can assist in a relevant referral.
Your workplace should have a programme in place that you can access or there may be other community resources in your area that you would feel comfortable accessing.
For more tips go to www.moh.govt.nz and search under “Christchurch Earthquake”.