As we all know, the eastern Turkish province of Elazığ was rocked by a major earthquake on Friday. So far 35 people have been killed and 1,547 have been injured as rescue workers continue to recover victims buried under the rubble. As if the 6.8-magnitude quake that destroyed dozens of homes and offices wasn't enough, it was followed by more than 530 aftershocks, nine of which were above a 4.0 magnitude. These have led to even more damage but more importantly, have caused people to relive their traumas over and over again. Many people can't find the strength to go back into their homes. They are sad, worried, and many are inconsolable.
Whether you were directly affected by last week's earthquakes or not, just know this – you are not alone. It's OK to feel this way. It's normal to be shaken, jumpy and scared; it's normal to fear for your safety and your family, especially if you are living in an affected area. Everyone will have different needs and different ways of coping, but the first step is to acknowledge our feelings, psychologists say.
Due to their unpredictable nature, quakes can induce a lot of anxiety. In the moment of tremors, the brain's powerhouse of emotions, the amygdala, steps in and triggers the fight-or-flight response, providing the body with a burst of adrenaline so that it can respond to perceived dangers. This sends the pulse rate and blood pressure right up, making us breathe faster to take in as much oxygen as possible. We become more alert, and our senses like sight and hearing become sharper. If the danger continues, then the stress hormone cortisol gets released by the adrenal glands. This keeps the body in a state of high alertness. When the threat passes, cortisol levels drop so we can return to normal. However, in the case of natural disasters, the body stays revved up and has a hard time putting a brake on these hormones because our physical wellbeing has been compromised – cue, debilitating mental health issues.
A man waiting for news about his relatives sits near a fire after an earthquake in Elazığ, Jan. 25, 2020. (AFP Photo)
Memories that scar
Continuing aftershocks and ongoing news about the earthquake on television and social media, unfortunately, set the stage to make the trauma permanent. Continuous exposure to such trauma spikes anxiety and panic in not only earthquake victims but also in society as a whole. However, the key here is to take it under control. Small doses of worrying and/or stress actually help protect us from danger by making us more alert and avoiding dangerous behavior. Yet, high levels of anxiety can lead to serious social cohesion issues, and those traumatized will not be able to sleep or fulfill their social functions. This turns into a full-fledged anxiety disorder that needs treatment.
Some of the most common symptoms of anxiety include: Feeling on-edge and irritable, hyperactivity, being easily fatigued, having trouble concentrating or feeling like your mind has "gone blank," muscle tension, having trouble sleeping and being overwhelmed by feelings of worry. However, anxiety will manifest differently for each person.
Children and emergencies
Out of all people, children and young people are at a greater risk for struggling with their mental health after earthquakes because they have less of an understanding of the situation, don't have that much experience handling stressful situations and may feel less in control of events.
If this is the first time your children are experiencing such a natural disaster, they may have a hard time wrapping their heads around the concept of earthquakes. They will need time to digest what has happened and to talk long and often about how they felt. Be prepared to discuss the same details many times. The language you use with them in your discussions will be of utmost importance; you will need to communicate correct, factual information in a calm and clear manner. Be honest and simple in your answers; do not use long, complex sentences that will further provoke anxiety.
Let them know that adults don't always understand why things happen either. Your kids might show signs of guilt so ensure that they realize they are not to blame for what has happened. Be supportive, loving and predictable in the way you act.
Instead of glossing over the whole ordeal by saying "there's nothing to be afraid of," parents should help children come to terms with their feelings and acknowledge their scared reactions as something completely normal. You need to assure them that they are safe now and perhaps explain to them what an earthquake is and inform them about what to do during it.
Even if you don't feel like explaining, your children will probably want to ask questions constantly to make sense of what they are going through. You must make sure that your answers are tailored to each child's age and avoid giving too much information.
Really young children won't be able to express their feelings or get a good grasp of the concept of an earthquake, so it's normal that they will want to play games, draw pictures or tell stories about the tremors. Do not panic, this is natural. Encourage them to engage in exercise and physical play and join in to offer them emotional support.
People spend a night in a makeshift tent in a park next to a huge fire after the earthquake. (AFP Photo)
What about adults?
At this point, parents and other adults will also need outlets to let out their emotions and stabilize their moods. It's crucial that you chat with friends, family and other adults about how you feel and share your thoughts.
Here are a few tips on how to cope:
Don't forget to take care of yourself while you try to help out your family and friends; it's OK to have some "me" time to collect your thoughts and have a breather. Stay connected with your loved ones. Try to maintain balance in your life between your personal needs, work and family obligations. Eat a balanced diet, even if you don't feel like doing so. Be as physically active as you can; the endorphins released during will help your mental health. Maintain a daily routine as much as possible, especially when it comes to sleep. If your thoughts and feelings start to overwhelm you, channel your energy into others. Sometimes it pays to forget our own troubles for a while. Find something constructive to do. Stop thinking about all the 'what ifs," take baby steps to achieve little things to help keep you positive. It might feel insensitive to do so at first but laugh when you can. Reflect on all the good things in life, practice gratitude. But most importantly be patient with yourself; know that you will recover and achieve peace at your own pace.
I'm far away from the affected area. What can I do to help?
1. Stop spreading false information via social media. Some people like to use such vulnerable times to exploit people or create bigger chaos with speculations. Make sure the things you repost or share will actually help people and come from confirmed and reputable sources.
2. Keep an eye out for calls for help and aid campaigns. Donate items such as blankets, jackets, sleeping bags, baby food, diapers and sanitary pads to aid collection points designated by your local municipality or nongovernmental organizations.
3. If you are within the area of impact, try to use text messages and communicate via the internet. Try to keep the phone lines open, avoid making long calls. Use your phone to make calls only if you are in an emergency.
*Contributed by Preschool Counselor Gizem Kazancıoğlu who specializes in child psychology.
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