Earthquake Aftermath

It’s the end of October 2010, and there have been over 2000 earthquakes since 4 September. If you’re not moving (e.g. in bed, sitting at a desk, eating dinner, watching TV), you certainly feel everything above about 3.5. But it’s only when it gets to about 4.5 that you stop what you’re doing and wait to see if it’s going to be another “big” one. At 5 or above, you get up (from the table, bed, your desk) and start moving towards the door frame/ big table/ desk as a precaution. If you’re moving (e.g. gardening, driving, doing exercise) you don’t notice it unless it’s 5 or above – and then you mostly notice the plants/whatever swaying and hear rattling of things on a table or the building’s groans.

Our lives are still being interrupted on a daily (or nightly) basis – that makes for lots of sleep-deprived, irritable people (domestic violence has increased exponentially since 4 September). Everyone I know talks about making little mistakes in all parts of their lives every day – that’s what trauma/sleep-deprivation/anxiety will do to you – and as long as the aftershocks continue, anxiety will remain high for everyone. We don’t know what the next minute/hour/day will bring in the way of danger. We are also very sensitive to any signals of earthquake – leaving town doesn’t guarantee peace as people are jumpy and startle at unexpected noises or trucks rumbling by.

One problem is that people (including Cantabrians) think that, because no-one died and the emergency services were so efficient that 90% of the greater Christchurch area had their essential services restored within a week, it’s a bit of a non-event. At the very least, we should be “over it” and back to normal. So people feel guilty about complaining – “but it’s not as bad as Haiti – no-one died! And we have water and power!” is a common cry. Cantabrians also have a reputation for being staunch – it’s shameful to admit that you’re afraid or anxious and not coping.

The fact is that there are many families whose homes have been evacuated – these people are still paying mortgages and having to rent elsewhere and live normal lives. There are also many people who are “camping” in their damaged homes – no water and no sewerage, so there is a Portaloo in the garden and water has to be collected. There are many people who have lost their jobs. Lots of businesses are no longer functioning – their premises have been demolished /are in the process of being demolished/ waiting for a decision from the Earthquake Commission/City Council about whether they should be demolished or restored, and they haven’t been able to set up in temporary premises. These people have lost their income and one of the mainstays of their identity.

There are also many people who were in some sort of transition (e.g. moving house or town or country) and the sale of their homes in Christchurch has been put off indefinitely because of the damage. They are now without jobs or somewhere to stay and cannot take up the new jobs/schools/lives they were looking forward to. Relatedly, people who had bought new homes and their new home is damaged now have to get out of their old homes for the new occupants and have nowhere to go. Lots and lots of plans are on hold, and people living in limbo.

For those people whose homes or livelihoods aren’t in jeopardy, just getting to work/school/the gym/the supermarket /friends/family/wherever takes longer and is harder because of many detours and the sight of familiar buildings and landmarks gone/being demolished/badly broken. Going to a business you’ve known for 20 years and finding that it’s gone, and having to find their temporary premises or find another business altogether is stressful. Collapsed chimneys and wall cracks, treasured objects that were broken, windows and doors that don’t open and close properly, the repeated falls of plaster-dandruff on the carpet as aftershocks loosen more plaster – these are constant reminders of how quickly life can be turned upside-down and just how helpless we can be.

The landscape of our lives has altered significantly, and change is always stressful for human beings. Every time there’s another strongly felt aftershock – and don’t be lulled by the word aftershock, lots and lots of these are of the impact that would previously have captured headlines in the media – the adrenalin and cortisol get pumping again. However, there are tremendous variations in how sensitive people’s brains are to the sensations of an earthquake – some people notice small sensations and others don’t notice sensations unless they’re really strong. This accounts, in part at least, for why some people become more upset than others when there is another aftershock.

Rather than pretend that everything is fine and that we can live as though there is no disruption, we have to acknowledge that we’re stressed and pay attention to the basics like sleeping, nutrition, exercise and good times. So, if you’re feeling too tired to start a big project – don’t; if you’re under pressure to make a big decision – don’t; if you don’t feel like going out partying – don’t. Sleep is a particularly common casualty of traumatic events, and many people (adults and children) have been struggling to get a decent night’s sleep. In particular, it’s the getting to sleep that’s hard.

So, here are ten basic things that can help with getting to sleep. One, try and go to bed at the same time most nights; two, have a bedtime ritual that includes things that are relaxing (e.g. making your preparations for going to bed, and then reading or listening to gentle music for 20 minutes); three, don’t watch television or play videogames or txt in bed – bed is for sleep; four, if you’re still awake after half an hour of trying to go to sleep, get up and do something boring until you feel sleepy again; five, don’t eat dinner or exercise close to bedtime (at least 2 hours before bed); six, cut down on alcohol – it might make you feel sleepy but it’s bad news for staying asleep; seven, make an appointment with someone else to do your worrying during the day – give yourself permission to worry, but not at night; eight, don’t drink coffee or tea (unless it’s decaf) at night; nine, make sure you do something that makes you happy every day – then think about that before you go to sleep; ten, try and get some exercise each day – preferably in the sunshine – a 20 minute walk will do nicely.

So, allow yourself and the people around you to prioritise taking care of your basic needs for physical and emotional safety and comfort, and life will get easier.


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