How do earthquakes affect people psychologically?

Natural disasters: risk of long-term psychological consequences

SCIENCE

People are sometimes helpless in the face of natural disasters. With experiences such as the loss of the family or the home, post-traumatic stress disorders are often inevitable. Targeted therapies can help.

Earthquakes, tidal waves, floods, tornadoes and other natural disasters not only leave immense material losses behind, but also lead to psychological damage. Trauma comes first. Various studies that determined the extent of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in survivors give prevalences of 14 to 56 percent.

Women and young people are particularly at risk
Symptoms are strongest immediately after the disaster, but for many sufferers they subside over time. Survivors who were directly confronted with fire, water or storms show particularly pronounced symptoms. The loss of relatives, one's home or livelihood is also extremely stressful. In addition, women, young people and people on low incomes are particularly vulnerable to the effects of natural disasters. You are at great risk of developing long-term PTSD or other mental disorders. A study carried out by Thai and American psychologists with 400 young survivors of the tsunami (2004) in Thailand shows, for example, that young people experienced numerous mental and psychological complaints as a result of highly traumatic experiences. The adolescents reported difficulty concentrating, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, loneliness, nightmares, and confusion. Their problems were exacerbated when their families were torn apart by the tsunami or could no longer find their way back to everyday life. Natural disasters are also formative experiences that are often not forgotten for a lifetime. This is the conclusion reached by Greek psychologists who interviewed 121 survivors of a strong earthquake on the island of Cephalonia (1953). At the time of the survey, the event had taken place 50 years ago, but many respondents were still very clearly aware of the events. Especially on the anniversary of the event, the old memories came back. "About a third of the survivors of natural disasters still suffer from PTSD symptoms one to three decades later," says Thomas Paparrigopoulos of the University of Athens. Long-term PTSD mainly affected women and people who were in a building during the earthquake and were scared to death. 78 percent of the survivors said the earthquake had affected their entire lives.

Social support strengthens resilience
Some of the victims of natural disasters cope with the experience on their own. Personality traits such as resilience (inner resistance), belief in a just world or self-efficacy contribute to this. As a team of American scientists discovered, residents of the city of New Orleans coped much better with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (2005) if they were convinced that they could change and improve something about their situation after the disaster. Social support also plays a role. Thai children and adolescents who were firmly integrated into their families and who received additional support from teachers, classmates and professional helpers had significantly fewer PTSD symptoms than their peers who were isolated one year after the tsunami. In addition, the life situation after a disaster has an impact on coping. Various studies report that people who had to live in tents or camps for weeks or months were less able to cope with the event than those affected who were soon able to move into their own house again.

Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) and Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) have proven effective as treatments for survivors. EMDR was developed in the 1980s by the American psychologist Francine Shapiro. With EMDR, the therapist stimulates the patient to make certain eye movements after structured preparation, which should make it possible to process unprocessed traumatic content. By following the hand movements with the eyes, bilateral synchronization and alternating stimulation of both halves of the brain should be achieved. It is assumed that the synchronization of the hemispheres of the brain is disturbed in trauma victims, which among other things leads to the fact that what has happened cannot be put into words and can therefore be processed more poorly.

NET is a short-term therapy developed by Dr. Maggie Schauer, Prof. Frank Neuner and Prof. Thomas Elbert at the University of Konstanz. It is a combination of two therapy methods (documentation of life history and exposure). The treatment can also be carried out by specially trained laypeople. At NET, those affected are encouraged to describe their life story and stressful events in a chronological sequence and to expose themselves to them. The memories are experienced psychologically and physically on a cognitive, emotional and sensory level. The resulting autobiography is recorded in writing and worked through, supplemented and corrected again in the next sessions. The aim is to systematically rebuild the autobiographical memory and to organize the feelings of those affected. At the end of the treatment, the feelings associated with the trauma and the feelings related to today's reality are clearly different from each other. The therapy ends with a ritual. There is a separate version for children, the KID-NET.
Dr. phil. Marion Sonnenmoser

Contact:
Thomas Paparrigopoulos, Athens University Medical School, Dep. of Psychiatry, 72-74 Vas. Sofias, 11528 Athens (Greece), email: tpaparrig @ med.uoa.gr
Prof. Dr. rer. Soc. Thomas Elbert, University of Konstanz, Universitätsstrasse 10, 78464 Konstanz, email: [email protected]
Abbasnejad M, Mahani KN, Zamyad A. Efficacy of EMDR in reducing anxiety and unpleasant feelings due to earthquake experience. Psychological Research 2007, 9 (3-4): 104-17.
Chen C-H et al: Long-term psychological outcome of 1999 Taiwan earthquake survivors. Comprehensive Psychiatry 2008; 48 (3): 269-75.
Lazaratou H et al: The psychological impact of a catastrophic earthquake. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 2008; 196 (4): 340-4.
Schauer M, Neuner F, Elbert T: Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET). A short-term intervention for traumatic stress disorders after war, terror, or torture. Göttingen: Hogrefe 2005.
Tuicomepee A, Romano J: Thai adolescent survivors 1 year after the 2004 tsunami. Journal of Counseling Psychology 2008; 55 (3): 308-20.
1. Abbasnejad M, Mahani KN, Zamyad A. Efficacy of EMDR in reducing anxiety and unpleasant feelings due to earthquake experience. Psychological Research 2007, 9 (3-4): 104-17.
2. Chen C-H et al: Long-term psychological outcome of 1999 Taiwan earthquake survivors. Comprehensive Psychiatry 2008; 48 (3): 269-75.
3. Lazaratou H et al: The psychological impact of a catastrophic earthquake. Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease 2008; 196 (4): 340-4.
4. Schauer M, Neuner F, Elbert T: Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET). A short-term intervention for traumatic stress disorders after war, terror, or torture. Göttingen: Hogrefe 2005.
5. Tuicomepee A, Romano J: Thai adolescent survivors 1 year after the 2004 tsunami. Journal of Counseling Psychology 2008; 55 (3): 308-20.
Natural disasters: risk of long-term psychological consequences

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