The Christchurch Earthquakes and Ongoing Stress

The clinical psychologists at have been writing regular columns for The Press for some years, each writing about his or her own area of speciality. Today, the six clinicians have come together to write about some of the psychological effects of the ongoing earthquakes in Christchurch on various aspects of everyone’s lives.

Earthquake Stress and Dangerous Escapes

In the year following the February earthquake many of us have had to deal with a wide range of earthquake related issues – in addition to coming to terms with the experience of the major seismic events themselves there is the loss of jobs, loss of homes, disruption to school and work routines, and sense of loss when we are continually confronted with ever increasing change to our cityscape.

Under such circumstances we shouldn’t be surprised that people may seek to escape their physical and mental reality. Escape can take many forms but some of these can be unhealthy. In particular psychoactive drugs, including alcohol, and also absorbing compulsive behaviours such as gambling and pornography use
Figures on alcohol and drug use post earthquake are hard to come by, but in terms of gambling recently released figures show a 10% increase in spending on Canterbury’s “pokie” machines in the past 12 months, which is remarkable when you consider the number of pokie machines reduced significantly, with over a quarter of venues affected, including the largest, the Christchurch Casino, which was closed for many months. There has been an increase in spending across the country in the past 12 months, but Christchurch and surrounding districts accounted for about half of the total increase – as much as the rest of the country combined in other words
Gambling venues were not the only ones affected by building damage/closure. These same venues, and others besides, were also licensed drinking premises. The result has been more people socialising at home, or in the homes of friends, and a move to the suburbs, with places such as Merivale and Papanui becoming hot spots for socialising and the negative consequences of public intoxication.

For many, an increase in drinking or other unhealthy choices isn’t a matter of consciously “self-medicating”, rather it is the fact that the earthquake and their aftermath have put lives under pressure in so many ways. And when under pressure small cracks can become large cracks and it is the cumulative weight of all of these worries that make the desire for escape become stronger.

We can respond to this challenge though by recognising two things: firstly, wanting to forget about your worries is natural and reasonable – having a break is important, but choose healthy options, look after yourself. Secondly, forgetting/escaping is fine for a break but in order to move forward and get life back on track you can’t spend all of your time not thinking about the big issues. The big issues have to be tackled.

The Earthquakes and Family Stress

We know that children enjoy the most favourable outcomes in all spheres of their lives when their parents manage to balance authoritative (firm and kind) parenting practices with a great deal of warmth.

Research suggests that children most equipped to cope with major stress are children who enjoy positive relationships with their parents. Positive relationships with parents are also fundamental to success in parenting and children’s respect for parental authority. However, these positive relationships can be disrupted by stress. Major stress arising from anxiety, loss and disruption to homes and finances (as in Christchurch over the past year or more) impacts negatively on parenting practices and families. We have heard the statistics on the increase in domestic violence and spousal conflict. All these effects may be devastating to individuals, the family and also to the child’s ‘world’ and well-being.

Take some quiet time to review and reflect on how you’re doing. How much of your own stress and anxiety may your children witness? Stand in their shoes and see and hear yourself through their eyes. Recall their facial expressions. How do you think they are feeling about their relationship with you? Are you sounding calm, firm and warm to your own ears, and managing to contain their anxiety or is there tension or irritability? Are you happy with the childhood experiences you are providing and will you look back on these years with happiness and the safe knowledge that you did your best? Will you be able to stand proud when you look your future adult children in the eye, having earned their respect and their desire to follow your modelling?

How do you stack up to yourself? With courage we can honestly and kindly reflect on our own behaviour and well-being and not attempt to be heroes; afraid to acknowledge we may need some help, some practical support, or a break now and then. The effects of ongoing stress may just sneak up on us and become part of our lives…hard to remember how we were before this all started. What are all the sources of stress in your life? What are you proud of? What are you enjoying? Do you laugh enough? How are your thoughts and energy? Is the work/pleasure balance healthy? What are you putting up with that could be changed? What fills your ‘cup’? Write down your ideas and discuss these with someone you trust. Go through the process of problem solving; clarify the problem, brainstorm creative solutions, select one or a combination and take action. Review your progress. Remember that life is short and should be enjoyed. Both you and those you love will benefit.

Domestic violence following earthquakes

Domestic violence is a topic that often elicits little sympathy with the public because of people’s unrealistic perception that victims should “just leave”. Following natural disasters, this issue often receives less attention than other emotive topics, such as the effect of the disaster on people’s pets. Some interesting findings pertaining to this very real social problem in the aftermath of the Canterbury earthquakes have been highlighted.

While crime has decreased significantly in Christchurch and surrounding areas, the overall rates of domestic violence reported to the police have remained largely unchanged. However, women’s refuges have identified significant increases in women reporting abuse, especially in the periods directly following the September, February, and June quakes. International research supports the trend of increased domestic violence immediately and for lengthy time periods following major disasters.
The violence is largely attributed to increased levels of stress. People are in a frequent state of arousal and anxiety making them less tolerant and more likely to “snap”.

Stressors include frequency and severity of aftershocks, loss of possessions, disruption or loss of amenities, being forced to live with others, diminished access to supports, loss of routines at home and work, tiredness due to loss of sleep, emotional fatigue, and uncertainty regarding the future. Individual thresholds for coping lessen and relationships become strained. In an effort to cope, many people resort to alcohol and drug use, thereby fuelling already tenuous relationships.

It therefore comes as no surprise that those who had previously resorted to domestic violence displayed an increased frequency and severity of violence following the quakes.

Paradoxically, some victims are more inclined to leave abusive relationships following natural disasters because of the increased visibility and accessibility of social support services and the availability of financial grants. Further, if they have lost many of their possessions, there may be less investment in remaining in the relationship. Some victims come to realise that if they can survive a significant disaster, then they can survive on their own.

Unfortunately, alternative pressures may be created for those that leave abusive relationships. The lack of alternative accommodation may result in lengthier stays in safe houses; child custody arrangements may not be addressed in a timely fashion; there may be less access to child care arrangements; less jobs available; and transport issues.

Victims of domestic violence may attribute their abuse to factors associated with the quakes and thus anticipate that it will resolve in the short term. However, as stressors are likely to remain in the medium to long term and due to some violence already having become entrenched, victims are encouraged to end the cycle of violence by seeking help.

Christchurch, Earthquakes, Anxiety and Depression

December 23 was a cruel blow to the residents of Christchurch and Canterbury. Prior to the powerful shakes on that Friday – just two days before Christmas Day – there was the sense that things were gradually settling. Prior to that afternoon, Canterbury residents had over the preceding fifteen months been contending with a huge amount of uncertainty and unpredictability – firstly, with respect to the potential for further earthquakes (and of unknown magnitude) and what risk might there be to life, limb, or property; and secondly, confusion and distress for many residents around matters regarding zonings, issues with local bodies, the insurance industry, and EQC.

Our emotional, psychological, and neurochemical wellbeing is reliant on there being a reasonable degree of consistency and predictability to our lives. When events such as those of September, February, June, and December occur, they disturb our equilibrium significantly. We are suddenly made aware of just how, in a flash, our life circumstances can be profoundly altered – and that is not an experience we find at all pleasant. Whilst each of us has our own unique reactions to such an event, it would be fair to say that most of us will experience some sort of reaction to such a sudden, uncontrollable, unpredictable, and maybe life-threatening event – and that is normal. Traumatic events, whether natural or manmade, are likely to cause us to question some very basic assumptions about how the world works and our level of personal safety within it: our take on the future, where we fit in the world, and our belief that human beings are fundamentally benign, may be called into question following a traumatic event. Unconstructive or insensitive responses from the various agencies to those affected by a catastrophe may potentially aggravate an already distressing situation.

Sleep difficulties, flashbacks, irritability, feeling on edge, and being on an emotional rollercoaster, are just a few of a number of reactions that may be experienced following a catastrophe. The curse of our situation in Canterbury is that the catastrophe has been ongoing, and whilst the geological scientists are providing us with the best data they can with regard to likely future patterns with aftershocks, it is very difficult for us to inform our fight/flight centre inside our brain to just “settle down”; and this is because the quakes have been ongoing – and some of very disturbing proportions – so that part of our brain can remain primed. Over time, this state of alertness can tire our neurochemical system. This unpredictable and uncontrollable stress can affect us physically and emotionally, and in due course a depressed mood may eventuate. Again, this is not at all unexpected; it is not a sign of lack of willpower or resiliency, as, unfortunately, some people are inclined to label themselves. In fact, there is likely to be a significant number of Cantabrians who have very appropriately spoken to their general practitioners or a mental health professional over these months, and sought assistance, whether it be medication, psychological intervention, or both.

The impacts of the earthquakes for people living with disability

For people and their families living with disability the consequences of the Christchurch earthquakes have been far reaching and have created unique challenges. First there have been significant environmental changes. These changes to our physical community have meant the central business district is no longer accessible, bus routes have been altered, roads and footpaths damaged and many facilities have moved or are no longer operating. This has affected people’s routines, activity levels, well-being and quality of life. Negotiating footpaths can be a risky affair now and for a person who uses mobility aids such as walking sticks or a wheelchair, this can mean reliance on others to get out and about, thus impacting on self esteem and independence. Damage to homes has created obstacles for people with mobility problems, for example those in wheelchairs have reported interesting experiences negotiating chemical toilets and portaloos. Second, there are social and psychological changes that have impacted on our community, friends, families and supports. The uncertainty and associated chronic stress and anxiety created by the earthquakes and ongoing aftershocks are overlaid on a life already complicated by disability. For example, the importance of daily routine and a predictable living situation for a person with a significant brain injury is critical to maintaining both physical and psychological health. The earthquakes and ongoing aftershocks have been anything but routine and predictable. However, the experiences for people living with disability are not all negative. While for some, the earthquakes and related changes to our physical and social environment have indeed been markedly isolating and distressing, for others these events have created some surprises. One woman living with a brain injury described how she had not realised people in her neighbourhood knew about her, much less cared. But they came to find her on February 22nd and made sure she was safe and supported in the days following. She now describes a greater sense of connectedness to her neighbours and local community. This connectedness has given her more confidence to contribute to and participate in local activities. Finally, as part of the rebuild of Christchurch the City Council is consulting with disability groups about building a better and more accessible city and this is a very real opportunity for Christchurch to develop a fabulous and inclusive space for all members of our community. You can find more information about this consultation process at

Trauma and Growth

While it’s undoubtedly true that the chronic stress of the past 18 months has taken a massive toll on individuals and the community in Christchurch, there is also some good news. Over the past decade, researchers have moved away from an exclusive focus on the negative aftermath following traumatic events. There is now a large and growing literature showing that people with cancer, parents of children with severe health problems, people who have suffered a heart attack, people who have served in war, and those who have survived natural disasters identify positive ways in which their lives have changed as a result of the traumatic events. The name that is generally assigned to these positive changes is “posttraumatic growth”. The originators of the concept, Tedeschi and Calhoun said “Posttraumatic growth is the experience of positive change that occurs as the result of the struggle with highly challenging life crises”. The research from other countries (and now New Zealand) suggests that post-traumatic growth tends to occur in five general areas. First, people who must face major life crises can develop a sense that new opportunities have emerged from the struggle, opening up possibilities that were not present before. We have seen so much of this in Christchurch where innovation is the name of the game and people have adapted to the changing landscape with exciting new projects. A second area is a change in relationships with others. Some people experience much closer relationships with specific people, and they can also experience an increased sense of connection to others who have suffered in the community. Again, we have seen this as neighbours get to know each other and the community band together for mutual support. Unfortunately, there is also the risk that relationships that were troubled before the trauma, may founder completely in the face of the ongoing stress. A third area of possible change is an increased sense of one’s own strength – “if I lived through that, I can face anything”. My personal crusade with children and families is to have them celebrate their survival and strength after any shock rather than live in constant fear of the next one. A fourth aspect of posttraumatic growth experienced by some people is a greater appreciation for life in general. We have also seen evidence of this, as people place more value on the non-material – experiences becoming more important than “stuff”. There is lots of talk around about being mindful in our daily lives and loving the little things that we notice as we become more keenly aware of our lives. People make changes to their lifestyles as they stop to reconsider their priorities in the areas of work, leisure, relationships, and so on. The fifth area involves the spiritual or religious domain. Some individuals experience a deepening of their spiritual lives. However, this deepening can also involve a significant change in one’s belief system, and there are those who abandon their religious beliefs in their grief.

What is particularly exciting is that these possibilities are available for everyone. Remember that tiny changes can lead to large benefits, so even opening up a little window to see the world a little differently can bring wonderful rewards.

Simon Adamson, Prue Fanselow-Brown, Craig Prince, Alan Prosser, Debbie Snell, and Fran Vertue are clinical psychologists practicing in Christchurch. You can read more about these clinicians and their work at


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