Earthquake and loss of control: psychologist explains the psychological risks of an earthquake

Earthquake and loss of control. Our beautiful country is clearly at constant seismic risk. Civil Defence and rescue workers know this very well

The trauma caused by an earthquake is something very deep, linked to people’s identity, to the certainties of a life, to a daily routine that no longer exists, to uncertainty about the future; in fact, the earthquake is sudden and unexpected, it overwhelms our sense of control, it involves the perception of a potentially lethal threat, it can result in emotional or physical losses (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD, EMDR, Open School – Cognitive Studies, Open School San Benedetto del Tronto, Emergency Psychology, Psychotraumatology, Trauma – Traumatic Experiences, F. Di Francesco, 2018).

Earthquake, how to intervene on the psyche?

The Ifc-Cnr Institute of Clinical Physiology in Pisa has drawn up a mini-guide that makes it clear how necessary it is to act immediately in the case of post-earthquake trauma, since it is so profound as to be capable of triggering other illnesses (ANSA):

1) What are the psychological effects and risks caused by the earthquake?

The stress caused by such terrible events is capable of changing hormone levels (cortisol and catecholamines, in women also oestrogen), altering sleep and, in the long term, hypertension, tachycardia and sometimes myocardial infarction.

But it is also necessary to distinguish between the perception of stress in adults and children.

2) What emotions does an earthquake trigger in the people who experience it?

Anxiety, fear and panic attacks.

Anxiety is generally a two-sided emotion: on the one hand, it can push the individual to do his best through adaptation; on the other hand, it can limit the individual’s existence by making him more vulnerable.

Studies have shown how, even in dramatic situations such as surviving an earthquake, victims can experience positive emotions that are just as intense and persistent as the negative ones.

Magnetic resonance imaging studies on survivors in an area of China in 2008 showed altered brain functions, predisposing to the development of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

3) What kind of psychological care is needed?

Primary prevention is needed, in which the individual is put in a position to know his or her own emotions and to know how to control the effects they have on behaviour and psychological health, through specific training with the help of courses and techniques to be implemented obviously in the periods preceding the disaster.

But secondary prevention must follow, in which psychological support interventions are planned after the earthquake.

4) What happens when a person suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)?

Research conducted in individuals who survived the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the earthquakes in Molise in 2002 and Abruzzo in 2009 shows that about half of the subjects studied developed this disorder. Generally, the person tends to ‘relive’ the traumatic event, suddenly losing contact with reality. These reactions can occur for months or years.

5) What is the advice for dealing with this disorder? Certainly not to let too much time pass, cognitive-behavioural therapy is used, whereby treatment begins in the first few days after the trauma.

The earthquake can be considered a real traumatic event, in this regard, Mitchell (1996) states that: “An event is defined as traumatic when it is sudden, unexpected and is perceived by the person as a threat to his or her survival, arousing a feeling of intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, annihilation” (Mitchell 1996).

Considering that not all people experiencing a traumatic experience react in the same way, the wide range of responses can range from complete recovery and return to a normal life within a short period of time, to more complex reactions that may prevent people from continuing to live their lives as they did before the event.

Emotional responses to earthquakes

Research conducted particularly in the field of the emotional responses of individuals living in earthquake-destroyed countries shows that fear, terror, shock, anger, despair, emotional numbing, guilt, irritability, and a sense of helplessness are the predominant responses to the earthquake (Petrone 2002).

Factors affecting the severity of the emotional response and consequent psychological distress and post-traumatic symptoms definitely include greater exposure to the earthquake, proximity to the epicentre, level of involvement and control, degree of perceived threat, disruption of the social network, a previous history of trauma or emotional problems, financial loss, female gender, low level of education, lack of social support immediately after the event, as well as lack of support from friends, colleagues and family, and relocation.

There are several studies suggesting that women have an increased risk of developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or other disorders, following exposure to traumatic events (Steinglass et al., 1990; Breslau et al., 1997); it also appears that school-age children are more vulnerable than younger children (Green et al., 1991).

In particular, parents’ behaviour, their level of distress and the family atmosphere influence children’s post-traumatic reactions (Vila et al., 2001).

In order to understand whether or not the earthquake has caused a typical Post Traumatic Stress Disorder reaction, the following symptoms must be present

  • the person tends to ‘relive’ the traumatic event, through recurring memories and images and in an intrusive and involuntary way of the moments following the tremor;
  • presence of recurrent dreams, mere nightmares in which the person relives particular scenes of the traumatic event;
  • reactivity to events (real or symbolic) resembling the earthquake with intense psychological or physiological discomfort (difficulty falling asleep or insomnia, irritability, difficulty maintaining concentration, hypervigilance and exaggerated alarm responses).

Psychological intervention after a major emergency, such as an earthquake, is crucial

The objective is to help process the tragedy, to ‘channel’ the emotions, with the aim of slowly getting to the point where they are no longer experienced.

This psychological intervention is carried out directly in the field by a team of psychologists specialised in immediate intervention.

The two categories most at risk are children and the elderly.

In the case of children, psychotherapy is continued, which is also practised on parents and teachers, so as to create a real network around the child, to help him or her recover.

Prevention and treatment

“One month after the traumatic event, a special trauma therapy can be undertaken.

Healing is possible, but the support of friends and family who understand and encourage the victim is very important.

In the case of the onset of one or more symptoms of Dpts, cognitive-behavioural therapy is recommended, with treatment starting in the first few days after the trauma.

In general, from a psychological point of view, the two categories most at risk are children and the elderly.

In the first case, psychotherapy is also practised on parents and teachers, so as to create a real network around the child, to help him/her in the healing process.

It is a work to be carried out gently, but without wasting time.

There are studies that, in children who have been victims of major traumas, have highlighted the danger of a delay in physical and cognitive development, which is difficult to recover if one does not intervene immediately (Dr Cristina Marzano).

Author of the article: Dr Letizia Ciabattoni


Disturbo da stress post-traumatico

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