This post started life as a letter to those of us in the central South Island of New Zealand who suffered yet another major earthquake last week. I suppose it could be applicable to anyone else in the situation of an ongoing disaster, natural or otherwise.
An Open Letter
Dear fellow earthquake survivors,
Last Monday’s huge earthquake was a traumatic event. I do not use that word lightly. Trauma is a thing, and today I am going to write a bit about the challenges of earthquake trauma in particular. I have tried to keep it brief but that has not been easy, so please read the whole thing before you react.
Towards the end you will find an example of the sort of habit that will help you get through — long-term. It is how I eventually learned to find some calm during a time when it seemed impossible: the Christchurch earthquake sequence that started in September 2010.
This is not a comprehensive guide to coping with trauma. The knowledge in here will not be relevant to everyone.
I wish I could offer more, but I was unable to avoid becoming overwhelmed myself. All I have is what I learned by trial and error. This post is offered so that you may not have to repeat my mistakes. Read on.
Responding to Threats
The first thing you learn in the aftermath of a large earthquake is that they are not a one-off thing. By now you will know this. Aftershocks go on for months or years, and can be as bad or worse than the first event. With every new rumble from the earth comes the inevitable thought: “is this one going to get worse?” There is an ongoing situation where your life could be threatened at any moment, even while you are asleep.
Common wisdom goes: the less we buy into this threat, the more we will be able to respond to it without losing our shit judgement. This strategy often works. Unless you have suffered medical shock (a whole different ball-game), you have probably come through the last few days feeling more alert, more able, and more resilient than you do in normal life.
I’ve been there. For the first few weeks after our big one, I biked around Christchurch (the roads were impassable for cars) with a backpack full of hand tools. I checked on friends, family and neighbours. I helped make roofs weather-tight, shoveled liquefaction, and took too many photos. I kept my mum company. I visited churches and monasteries of all religions. This was all over town. I biked twenty to fifty kilometres every day. I felt strong and able-bodied.
Your body has a natural response that gives you a survival advantage through hormonal changes. This response is known as fight-or-flight, and you have probably heard of it. It makes you feel wired, ready to attack the nearest problem, or run away from danger, or both (hence the name).
Handy? Totes — for the short-term.
Living With Ongoing Threat
But the aftershocks grind on. The roofs leak less for a while, but they spring open again next time the ground shakes. People are still afraid. Although the frantic pace of repair-work eases back just a little, you start to realise how much has been lost.
My mind raced all day until late at night. In the mornings, I woke bone tired, but by evening I was so hyped that I could not sleep.
I started getting ill a lot, colds and flu in summer time, which interfered with my building apprenticeship. I found it harder to concentrate when working my other job. And despite still biking twenty ks every day, I started gaining weight.
While hyped up after a big aftershock, I would say “let’s do something to take our minds off it. Let’s have a BBQ”. And I would call up my mates.
What I had yet to learn was that insomnia, immune system slowdown, low libido, digestive problems, memory and concentration problems, and weight gain are all textbook features of ongoing chronic trauma. These are things you do not want.123
When February the 22nd came along, I was in the CBD, near the CTV building. I assisted for a while but had to leave and run to my son’s school, where they were trapped on the fourth floor. Too many needy causes. Once he was safely evacuated, my son and I abandoned the Kombi in a carpark due to gridlock, and walked out of town. That evening, I broke down in tears. My son was asleep and didn’t have to see it, thankfully.
I took time away from my jobs and we both headed for Golden Bay. Eventually this led to me being unemployed for a few months.
What went wrong?
In the months following the first 7.1 quake, the bumper-stickers read “Kia Kaha Christchurch” and “We’ll be back!”. This seems like a good sentiment for recovery; to make a stand, despite what had happened. Unfortunately, it did not take into account what was still happening. It assumed the threat had passed and it was time to pick up the pieces. That was naive.
In our case, the threat had not passed: large earthquakes are not a one-off event. I told myself that the probability of another large one decreased with each passing day. But as each pulse of shaking thrummed through my living room, or kicked me where I lay jacking up piles, I could not help the fear: will this one get worse? The familiar rush of energy would catch fire in my belly and burn into my chest. Big ones left my lungs bursting, my face flushed, my hands trembling.
Kia kaha did not cut it in the face of this ongoing threat to my life and loved ones. In fact, it had stopped working long before I realised.
I interpreted “kia kaha” to mean staying committed to my job, having goals, finding ways to have fun despite what had happened, and being a support to others. But when I left work for the day, what my nervous system actually wanted was safety and familiarity, not another social outing or support call to struggling family. I needed to put something back in my own tank.
“Soothing”. It is not a word we associate with being resilient. If you are like me, there will be a kind of namby-pamby sound to it in your ears. That is a shame, because unless you vacate the region, you are in this for the long haul. It will be a busy time. Yes, you will need to keep your friends and family close; they will need your support and you will need theirs. Yes, you will need the odd blow-out from time to time. But your chances of coping will be much better if you add something that soothes your nerves, not pushes them further. You need to balance out your body’s crisis reaction.
Here in Christchurch it is six years later and finally there is a glimmer of rebirth in the CBD. You might be able to kia kaha without stopping for six years, but I could not. I barely lasted six months.
So What To Do, Then?
Most importantly, look for symptoms of fatigue in yourself and others. This is the best thing you can do to support your loved ones and neighbours. Signs to watch out for are trouble finishing sentences; tremor, tics and shaking; cravings to smoke, drink, or eat takeouts; losing hair, going grey or gaining wrinkles in the course of a few weeks; behaviour like repeatedly snapping at people or crying if that’s out of character. Thoughts interrupting one-another. Trouble sleeping, even when you’re exhausted.4
You may notice one or many of these in yourself or others over the coming weeks and months. The earlier you catch them, the easier they will be to shift. When they mount up for months like in my case, they become integrated into one’s neurology and harder to unravel.
They can indicate emotional, intellectual or physical exhaustion. Maybe all of them; it doesn’t matter. The important thing is what you do about it.
Stop on a dime
You need a practical way to unwind at the drop of a hat. In my case the most useful habits did not turn out to be the hour-long+ yoga and T’ai Chi classes that I attended. Those were an important part of my learning, and if something along those lines interests you, then I recommend adding them to your routine. But amidst a sequence of natural disasters, they were ultimately of limited practical use outside the studio or training hall.
I needed something I could roll into my days, so I could stop whenever I had a chance during daily life, take five and regroup. Something quick and reliable that I could use in the middle of endless roadworks, that wouldn’t take years to master.
The best example I have found is the simple breathing practice below. This for me was key.
A Simple Breathing Practice: Lengthening the Exhale
Next time you are on a break, before reaching for your smartphone, or a beer, give the below practice a try (and then have a beer). It is so simple, you will wonder what the point is — more on that soon. But partly because it is so quick and simple, it is also surprisingly effective.
You will feel calm within three minutes. You can do it anywhere. You can do it dozens of times a day.
- If preferred, find a private place (eg., bathroom, bedroom, or your car) so you do not feel self-conscious
- Make your exhales long — twice, three times or four times longer than your inhale:
- Do this by blowing out between pursed lips like you would blow out a candle — slowly, in a thin stream of breath, without force.
- At the end of each exhale, hold your breath out for a few moments. No air in your lungs.
- Do this for three to five breaths, or keep it up for a few minutes.
This practice will not unwind the entire stress of a shitty situation back to zero; but hey, nothing is perfect. It might still be the difference between making rational decisions or losing the plot at someone.
Do not be one of those people who melts down after six months of stoic endurance like I did.
There is a cumulative benefit from doing it frequently. Once every few days will not be enough. Aim for every couple of hours. That will make a difference.
How it Works: The Vagus Nerve
Lengthening your exhale like this reduces the urgency of your next inhale. More specifically, it increases the tone of your vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is part of your body’s involuntary (or “autonomic”) nervous system. The involuntary system is separated into two branches: the sympathetic nervous system controls your body’s fight-or-flight response, while the para-sympathetic nervous system provides a natural counter-balance.
Your vagus nerve forms the main part of the para-sympathetic side of things. It is also the largest nerve of the whole autonomic nervous system, either branch. It runs from your brain down your neck and through your diaphragm. It communicates with all the major organs and glands in your torso — your heart, intestines, kidneys, liver, stomach, spleen, you name it; with one exception. It does not influence your adrenal glands. They are a tool of the sympathetic nervous system alone. 5
Lengthening the exhale in this way is a gentler form of the Valsalva manoeuvre, which stimulates the vagus nerve 6. This promotes three main neurological states that counterbalance the trauma response:
- “rest and digest” (creates gentler breathing, slower heart rhythm, effective food breakdown and greater nutrient absorption)
- “feed and breed” (fosters a healthy appetite in more ways than one)
- “tend and befriend” (instincts around looking after friends and making new friendships)
These are the neural opposite of the fight-or-flight response. Without them, all that busy activity in the next few months will come at a high cost.
Good tone of the vagus nerve is also linked to heart-rate variability, which is an important marker for health and stress levels 7.
Practices that promote “rest and digest” down-regulate production of stress hormones, giving your body a break and the chance to find a new equilibrium.
Repeated often enough, it will make a lasting change on how you are able to bear up. Consider it an investment.
- Don’t wait until a quiet time for this, or let’s face it you’ll never get there. Tell those nearby “I’m going to take three minutes” and just go for it. They’ll soon be copying you.
- It’s better if you can sit or lie down; setting aside even just three minutes to unwind is part of the benefit. But you can also do it while moving around if resting is not an option (e.g. in the shower, while working). You might not notice the effect so much but it’ll still be there. And every little bit helps.
- Have a glass of water afterwards (and chase it down with a beer if you want 🙂 ).
- Repeat often! (Familiar theme yet?)
- I just found a similar take on this technique at Mind Body Green 8. There isn’t much new there that I haven’t already covered but you can go ahead and use it for fact-checking if you want.
Textbook of Functional Medicine. The Institute of Functional Medicine. Gig Harbor, WA. 2010.↩
Chronic Stress (Mayo Clinic)↩
Vagus Nerve (Wikipedia)↩
Valsalva Manouevre (Wikipedia)↩
Measuring Compassion in the Body (Berkeley University of California, 2015)↩
A Simple Breathing Exercise (Dr. Robin Berzin for Mind Body Green, 2012)↩