When the Ground Shaking Leaves You Quaking: Seismic Events and Trauma
On October 30, 2023 my most beloved Jamaica experienced the strongest earthquake in three decades. This is the third event of a major “shake” in six weeks however, this was by far the longest and strongest jolt most people can remember experiencing in their lifetimes. Many calls and texts to and from concerned friends all pointed to the fact that this unusual occurrence was distressing for many. Some people reported being traumatized by the sense that their lives were in danger, others were pragmatic and still others were able to take appropriate actions to increase their chances of survival had the situation escalated to severely life threatening. Given the increase in visits to hospitals immediately following the first earthquake felt on October 30 for anxiety, I deem it necessary to normalize the experience of anxiety following a traumatic event, to explain what trauma is and to give a few tips to those who are struggling to help them cope.
Trauma, (as defined by the American Psychological Association), “is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster”. What happened in Jamaica, despite damage being mostly relatively minor, meets the criteria for a natural disaster. Unlike a hurricane in which we can take necessary precautions to prevent harm and we can reasonably predict the potential scale of damage, earthquakes are unpredictable. This is what makes the event so traumatic for some people. We experience shock and denial immediately after the event as our brains and bodies attempt to make sense of what has occurred. The sense of helplessness can often overwhelm us and result in us not being able to react in appropriate ways.
There have been reports of people bursting into tears, freezing, running and, still others responding based on prior knowledge of earthquake drills ducking, covering and holding. ALL of these responses are normal. Most of us are fairly familiar with the fight/flight response to danger. However, there are also freeze and fawn which though lesser known are responses that we also exhibit in the face of threat. For the purposes of this piece, the emphasis will be on the freeze response as it is very closely related to traumatic experiences.
When we are completely overwhelmed by an imminent threat against which we are aware we have no control, capacity to defeat or flee, we may involuntarily respond by freezing. This means that our brains have chosen to shut off our ability to be present in the moment to avoid us fully experiencing what is happening to us. In some cases, this is highly adaptive as it allows us to increase our chances of survival an example of which is if a predatory animal is mauling someone. “Playing dead” would likely encourage the predator to lose interest in the attack and raise the person’s chances of survival after by minimizing physical injury. However, there are situations where this works against us like an earthquake where we can literally be killed by falling objects, it is obviously hazardous.
As I have engaged with people after the incident, many told me that they were so terrified they could not will themselves to move. This would be consistent with the freeze response. Some people were harsh in their judgements about this response in others however, the truth is we often do not choose which response we will demonstrate from incident to incident and therefore, I would invite everyone to consider that although YOUR response may be to intuitively fight or flee, others’ responses were just as intuitive and they instead froze.
One of the things that would help to preserve life and increase chances of overriding the freeze response is the use of earthquake drills to train us how to respond in these situations. As a child, I remember earthquake and fire drills happening every term in school. I looked forward to them because it meant we could leave class early and when you are a child, THIS is your main priority. However, given the frequency with which we drilled, we conditioned ourselves to react from our reflexes and duck, cover and hold. This simply means finding a large object to crawl under for protection from falling objects. Tables, chairs, beds, counters etc. are excellent for this. It is also helpful to jump into a door frame and brace to avoid being flung around. Holding on raises the chances that we will not be separated from the object keeping us safe thereby raising our chances of survival.
Many people who internalized that training defaulted to it when the earthquake hit. Remember that what causes the freeze response is the idea that there is NO evasive action one can take in the face of dire impending danger. If we train ourselves to duck, cover and hold, we introduce an action we can take to protect ourselves and essentially thwart the freeze response.
Many people reported feeling hypervigilant, traumatized and anxious days after the event. This too is completely normal. So normal in fact, that in order to meet the diagnostic criteria for PTSD, symptoms must persist for more than a month after the incident. This means that it is expected that people will feel dysregulated for a while and therefore, it is an opportunity to be kind to each other and to ourselves rather than judgemental about how long it takes someone to “get over” the incident.
Given the degree to which people reported that they experienced anxiety, I am choosing to share a few techniques for soothing our nervous systems. These techniques may be useful on their own or in combination to help us slow our breathing and come back to the present in which we are safe.
Box breathing helps to slow down our heart rate and return us to our baselines. This technique shuts off our sympathetic nervous system which is the part of us that is tied to the fight/flight response. It engages the parasympathetic nervous system which is the part of us linked to our resting state. For more information, see here. These two processes cancel each other out and therefore, if we attempt to engage the parasympathetic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system shuts off and we become calm.
The technique itself is simple:
Step one – Inhale through the nostrils for the count of four
Step two – hold the breath for a count of four
Step three – exhale through the mouth for a count of four
Step four – repeat till the heart slows
This technique brings us back to our physical senses which orients us to the here and now. Anxiety involves looping thoughts. It is virtually impossible to be “in our heads” and “in our bodies” at the same time so this technique allows us to slow things down so that we can focus solely on right here and right now where we are safe.
The technique involves identifying:
5 things in your physical environment that you can see
4 things in your physical environment you can touch
3 things in your physical environment you can hear
2 things in your physical environment you can smell
1 thing in your physical environment you can taste.
There are numerous grounding techniques and some can be found here.
As we slowly return to normal, remember that compassion and gentleness for ourselves and others costs nothing but has a huge impact. Hopefully, we will remind ourselves of effective evasive actions we can take should another earthquake occur to increase our survival and, in the emotional aftermath, we can ground ourselves so we can recover faster.