Thursday, March 31, 2011

Managing life (and stress) after the Christchurch earthquakes

The way every individual feels following a stressful event varies though there will be many common reactions among your family, friends, neighbours and colleagues. A good factsheet from the Ministry of Health outlines common reactions and provides good advice.

Common reactions tend to fall into four main categories: emotional, physical, cognitive (thinking) and behavioural (actions). I know I have experienced and continue to experience parts of them all in varying degrees!

Emotional responses may include fear of recurrence or fear for the safety of yourself and loved ones; anger, sadness and shock. I personally have been, at times, overwhelmed by sadness for those who have lost loved ones, businesses, buildings, life routines and their sense of security. I cried when I saw newspaper images while in a Timaru cafĂ© when we had fled Christchurch and I cried when driving whilst listening on the radio to Dave Dobbyn playing ‘Loyal” at the memorial service and I cried some more whilst walking around Lyttelton for the first time and seeing the loss of not only buildings but the destruction of the atmosphere and vibe that I have loved for so long.

Physical responses such as difficulty sleeping, feeling tired, jumping to attention at the slightest noise, breathing difficulties and muscle tension are all common following the earthquake or any traumatic event. The stiffness I feel in my back and my 230am ‘alarm clock’ would agree with these!

Being flooded by memories of the event, and what you did before, during and after the event, are normal cognitive responses to the events of both September 4th 2010 and February 22nd 2011 (dates that are now etched in our minds). Other common responses are experiencing dreams and nightmares about what happened, difficulty in making even easy decisions and difficulty concentrating.

The ways we behave may also be affected and again are normal behavioural responses to abnormal, crazy times. This may be a feeling of being easily irritated by others and a loss of interest in normal activities. There may also be an increase in alcohol, smoking and other drugs. A friend of mine who runs a supermarket told me that there has been a 150 % increase in wine sales at his store and I am sure not all of it has been to me! On the work front, you may feel less motivated and have difficulty concentrating.

The old clichĂ© ‘time heals all wounds’ is probably a bit over-pitched (some argue that it is what you do with the time that counts)but it will take time for us to feel better and return to some sort of normal and that length of that ‘time’ will be different for all of us. We do need to give ourselves time to heal and recognise that our feelings will also change over time. We can do things that may help us feel better:

1. Follow a normal routine as much as possible.
As a parent I have often read and heard that a ‘routine’ was good for children and that it helps them feel secure, I instinctively agreed with this and set a fairly rigid routine for our children. It wasn’t until my experiences with the earthquakes that I have realised how normal routine is so important for me too. During our self-imposed exile after February 22nd I began to crave our normal routine, the same routine that a few weeks before I was no doubt complaining about for its ‘ground hog day’ characteristics. I was eager to return home (as soon as we had running water and sewerage) to launch into school and preschool drop offs and pick ups, piano lessons, gym attendance, mealtimes, work etc.
2. Eat healthy meals
3. Exercise and stay active. A return to my local personal training studio has been great for me. A good place to meet others, share experiences, joke and do something ‘normal’ while getting some exercise!
4. Help other people in your community. The coming together of neighbours, friends and community has been a silver lining to a very dark cloud. The stories of helping, support and generosity are many and varied and I just wish that these stories were blast across the media as the ones of discontent seem to be.
5. Accept help from family, friends, or co-workers,and talk about your feelings with them. I have heard many great stories of support coming from organisations with whom we work (installation of washing machines and showers so those without water or sewerage could clean and wash at work, emergency repairs to the home of staff carried out by company personnel with the capabilities, vouchers for goods, letters of appreciation and counselling support).
6. Limit your time on looking at or listening to media reports on the tragedy. Clinical psychologists suggest that repeated viewing of graphic footage of disasters event adds no further understanding in terms of information and carries a risk of possible psychological difficulties later on.
7. Seek further assistance if you continue to have prolonged reactions that disrupt your daily functioning

Kia kaha