Mind Over Matter
By Katie McKone
While the physical scars may be starting to fade, the devastating Christchurch earthquake will be forever etched in our minds.
The February 22 disaster has put a huge toll on the psyche of those left to pick up the pieces — from the many businesses forced to start from scratch, to the thousands of uprooted and displaced families unable to return to their homes. Tragedy on such a scale is not something that can simply be erased from our minds; it will take time and effort before things start to return to normal — whatever, or whenever, that may be.
Mental health workers are anticipating a dramatic increase in the number of anxiety, fear and stress-related concerns over the coming months. The scars will be raw for sometime yet, claims Cerina Altenburg, team leader of Christchurch’s General Practice Mental Health Liaison Service.
Altenburg expects people to seek help in “tides” as they slowly begin to deal with the aftermath. “Almost everybody will be experiencing some degree of psychological stress, as this is a normal healthy reaction to such a traumatic event,” she says. “There has been major damage and loss of life this time, and the visual reminders are everywhere.”
According to the Ministry of Health, a range of common reactions to disaster include shock, fear of a recurrence and anger at the injustice of it all. Many people will have difficulty sleeping, become easily startled and experience flashbacks.
The swarms of aftershocks that continue to rattle the city will no doubt be raising the pulse rates, creating a lingering fear every time the earth rumbles beneath our feet.
There is no right way to behave, says Altenburg, and each person will exhibit different symptoms.
“Sleeplessness, irritability and having your heart in your throat with each aftershock are all common reactions.
“Every one of us got frightened, there is no doubt about that, and we will all be experiencing a wide range of different emotions at the moment.”
Victim Support chief executive Tony Paine says those who have already sought help from the organisation are presenting exhausted, dehydrated and tearful. Many want nothing more but daily necessities such as a hot shower, a meal and sleep, followed by practical assistance and reassurance.
It is hard to put a time limit on how long such symptoms will continue, Paine adds, as it is up to each individual and their own recovery process. “But certainly this event will live on in the minds of many for a long time to come.”
Many terms and phrases have been coined to describe our current mental state after the earthquake. Yet Christchurch businesswoman Jo Fife has put forth the notion that “quake brain” will be a common phenomenon among those in the business community.
Put simply, it describes the feeling of not being able to focus on the job at hand and ultimately getting very little done. Things just completely “fizzle out”, says Fife, who runs networking company Grow Your Business.
“On some days people may be absolutely into it, all action stations. But then the next day you simply can’t get enough motivation or energy to even think about doing anything.”
The Canterbury community is dealing with tragedy on a much larger scale this time around, leaving business owners to deal with both personal and professional disasters at the same time.
“People will no doubt want to sideline the business aspect and just rest for a bit, letting themselves take into account what has just happened. It is very much an up and down process,” Fife says.
Seeking support from family and friends is the best course of action people can take to get themselves on the road to recovery, Altenburg says.
“Normalising, supportive approaches are helpful, as people need to embed themselves in the company of folks that they know right now. If you are frightened there is no need to be alone.”
Symptoms will decrease over time, but there are specific steps people can take to help build up mental resilience.
Maintaining a sense of normality can be achieved by re-establishing a routine and having regular eating and sleeping patterns. Taking part in the rebuild of a community can also be a satisfying way for people to focus on needs other than their own.
Fife says the best way for businesses to get up and running is to take it one day at a time.
“If you try and take too much on it becomes too intense and you simply find yourself back at square one.
“The most important thing at the moment is for business owners to be making contact with their clients and customers, keeping them in the loop so as you don’t lose them.”
Utilising networks and banding together will be crucial to successfully rebuilding the city. “This is a really opportune time for businesses to collaborate and join forces, which is going to make two businesses a lot stronger. It just depends if people are ready to do that right now,” adds Fife.
Top tips for staying emotionally healthy
- Surround yourself with family and friends, building a support network
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help – it is there for the taking
- Be sure to establish normal routines, creating a sense of purpose amid the chaos
- Maintain regular eating and sleeping patterns
- Engage in exercise
- Help rebuild your community
- Limit time spent listening or watching dramatic footage of the tragedy
- If needed, seek professional help from your local GP or counselling service