How does earthquake trauma affect our psychology?


Recently, we have been witnessing many events that we do not want to happen both in our country and in the world. When we talk about wars, migration, economic crises, pollution, floods and fires, we add to this the strong earthquake that we have experienced in recent days.

Earthquake, unfortunately, is the reality of our country. We will immediately forget this fact, because we always find ourselves unprepared for earthquakes. However, an earthquake causes very serious injuries to the individual and social. It can be said that there is no one in our country who has not been injured in one way or another in recent years. Although the topic of trauma came to the fore again with the earthquake, it is an issue that is always present in life and is too important to be handled casually. So what is trauma?

What is trauma?

Trauma is the general name given to events that unexpectedly disrupt a person’s physical and mental integrity and balance, as well as their ability to cope with stress. While incidents such as accidents, wars, torture, rape, and harassment are examples of man-made injuries; Injuries seen after natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes are natural injuries. Traumatic events are directly affected by those who were personally exposed to the event, those who lost their loved ones in the event, search and rescue teams that came to their aid, security forces, media representatives, volunteers, eyewitnesses and everyone watching the event on television at home.

Almost anyone who has been exposed to a traumatic event may experience various psychological difficulties in the hours, days, and weeks following the event. This is fine. Because an event has occurred that is too extraordinary for people to handle, and people exhibit a normal stress response to an abnormal event. In most cases, these stress reactions resolve within a few weeks. However, in some people, the symptoms of traumatic stress persist even months or even years later. This is called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Let’s take a look at the symptoms of stress seen in people immediately after a natural disaster such as an earthquake.

Stages observed in humans after a natural disaster/traumatic event (Işıklı, 2013)

  • Shock period: This is a period of up to 48 hours from the occurrence of the event in people exposed to the event. At this stage, a person may not experience pain, inability to perceive, everything seems unreal, difficulty concentrating memory and attention, a robotic appearance of a person called emotional harshness, an inability to think logically and make decisions, panic or fading of reactions. At this stage, first of all, the physical safety of the victim/injured must be ensured. The relief team should get the victim to a safe place away from the scene of the accident as soon as possible. It should be ensured that the person is in a calm and safe place, and self-care activities such as sleep, nutrition and protection should be guaranteed.
  • Response period: This stage is a period that lasts from 2 to 6 days from the moment the event is detected. A protected person may feel fear, anxiety, anger, helplessness, guilt, shame, and insecurity. He may experience tremors, nausea, muscle pain, dizziness, fatigue, restlessness, trouble sleeping, and changes in appetite. They may have frightening and terrifying dreams and avoid stimuli that remind them of disaster. Recurring thoughts and dreams (memories) of the disaster may occur. Since all these reactions are frightening, the victim may think that he/she will go crazy. At this stage, psychoeducation by trained interventionists helps to overcome this process more easily.
  • Mental Processing and Bypass Period: This is a process that is observed within a month after approximately 7 days have passed since the event. At this stage, the injured/injured person does not want to talk about the event. He mourns his loss, and fear is replaced by sadness and longing. Problems with memory and attention persist. In interpersonal relationships, problems, irritability and conflicts can arise. During and after the event, if relief activities are poorly organized or negligent, the person may be subject to secondary trauma and may experience excessive distrust of the state and others, outbursts of anger, or a desire to be left alone. At this point, the person should be helped to return to their normal routine (eg, work, school). And most importantly, every support must be provided to restore confidence in the state, society and life, to create optimistic prospects for the future.
  • Recovery period: This is the process after the first month of the traumatic event. At this stage, a person begins to accept what happened, the sharpness of his reactions decreases, interest in everyday life returns to him, he makes plans for the future, feels better emotionally, the event of a catastrophe / trauma becomes part of his life. and memories. It takes time to process all of this. Reactions such as denial, suppression, and avoidance hinder the processing of trauma. In this case, recovery does not occur, and the whole life of a person begins to be negatively affected. Traumatic stress symptoms now develop into post-traumatic stress disorder. A person who cannot go through the recovery phase should receive professional support from a mental health professional (counseling psychologist/psychologist).

Natural disasters and man-made injuries

Victims of trauma caused by other people, such as rape, torture, and war, are known to have more severe and prolonged traumatic stress disorder than victims of natural disasters, such as earthquakes and floods. The reason disaster victims show milder post-traumatic symptoms is because there seems to be no human resources in these disasters to blame for betrayal, violence, or error.

Since these disasters are often linked to fate, bad luck, or the forces of nature, the trust of the victims in society and the state is not completely destroyed. However, the suffering of victims of technogenic trauma is often caused by people close to them, and their trust in people and society has been shaken or completely destroyed. Although the factors that undermine or destroy such trust are less obvious in natural disasters, two important human factors play a role in the development of post-traumatic stress disorder after these disasters.

The first of these is human negligence, which manifests itself in natural disasters that lead to the death or loss of people. The collapse of unchecked buildings or from which cement and iron were stolen are the fault and negligence of both the builder and the neglected. Another human factor in the trauma of disaster victims is the post-disaster relief phase. Many human resources such as various foundations, associations, individuals, government mechanisms and foreign aid agencies play a role in the aid phase. Delays in care, distributional bias, double standards, abuse increase the severity and duration of traumatic stress experienced by trauma victims. These people’s trust in institutions and the state is completely destroyed.

On top of all this, man-made crimes such as muggings, robberies, assaults, and rapes are known to increase unrest after a natural disaster such as an earthquake. After the 1999 Goljuk earthquake, debris and dead looters were seen to have arrived from other parts of the country in trucks, not only debris but houses that were abandoned out of fear, and black market goods were sold to the earthquake. victims (Akkanbash, 2009).

Through such malicious, opportunistic, and destructive events, people actually contribute to natural trauma. Therefore, we can say that there are no injuries of 100% natural origin. At the moment, this is the first condition for the adoption of the necessary security measures by the state, because the priority in an injury is to ensure safety. It is necessary to be very well organized to ensure that the relief work is done in a timely and correct manner and there are no delays in the relief materials.

In addition, there is another issue that both the state and we individually should pay attention to. First, the consciousness of a society that has undergone a traumatic event is polarized. As a result of trauma, people begin to think polarized. For this reason, especially leaders of the country should avoid rhetoric that polarizes society. It should not be forgotten that an event occurred that affected the people in the disaster area and the entire country and deeply shook the sense of security.

In this process, it is necessary not to encourage the spread of polarizing and divisive news and expressions in the media, especially on social networks. In addition, we must personally remain calm, take care not to neglect self-care (e.g. sleep, nutrition), and continue with our daily activities so that we can help those directly affected by trauma. Finally, I would like to remind you that trauma affects everyone, but their reactions may be different. Therefore, avoiding unnecessary and pointless accusations, arguments and arguments, and focusing on your loved ones, responsibilities and how we can help those in need, will be the most logical choice.

The Psychology of Disasters and Victims, Handbook of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorders, dr. Psychologist Mert Akkanbash, AKUT Publications, Istanbul, 2009
First psychological aid in case of natural disasters, Assoc. Dr. Sedat Ishikli, Hacettepe University, Faculty of Psychology, Ankara, 2013

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