Those affected live for a long period of time in elevated and intense emotional states of uncertainty, fear, anxiety and stress, surrounded by rubble, injured and deceased.
According to the Turkish and Syrian authorities, the balance of deathly victims that have caused the earthquakes that have been registered this past Monday near the border of these two countries, exceeds 9,000 people. The number of injured, so far and waiting for the rescue work to progress, is 41,665 victims.
The Disaster and Emergency Management Authority (AFAD) estimates that the number of completely destroyed buildings amounts to 6,200. These types of “uncontrollable events”, such as the earthquake measuring 7.4 on the Richter scale that has shaken both territories, has consequences on the mental health of the survivors.
“Those affected live for a long period of time in elevated and intense emotional states of uncertainty, fear, anxiety and stress, surrounded by rubble, injured and deceased, struggling to survive and worried about their loved ones,” he explained to this newspaper. Iciar Palaciospsychologist at the Claritas Psychological Institute.
The psychological effects of the high costs in terms of human and material lives can be short, medium and even long term.
“In general they can cause changes in the way we perceive the world. The lived experience informs us that the world is a dangerous, uncontrollable and threatening place, making the affected person feel powerless, defenseless, frustrated, angry, anxious, stressed or afraid”, says the specialist.
However, these problems may not affect all the people who have been the protagonists of these catastrophes.
- “This is unusual, and it can seriously affect the mental health of those affected, generating emotional and psychological sequelae such as those explained below.”
Impact of earthquakes on mental health
The phases experienced by someone affected by a natural disaster, specifically an earthquake, are the following:
- shock phase. It is very short. It occurs when the catastrophe occurs. It generates emotional responses of intense anguish, fear, confusion…. The main objective of this phase is survival.
- Protection seeking phase. It has a longer duration in which it is about responding to the need for protection where it is about escaping and looking for and reuniting loved ones. It is a time of great anguish and anxiety. It usually lasts for hours
- help phase. Next comes the need to altruistically help others. In this phase, a feeling of anxiety and depression is also experienced, however, cooperation and help prevail. usually lasts days
- coping phase. Subsequently, comes the phase in which the person faces reality, in which they experience anxious-depressive symptoms, they face the loss not only of loved ones, but also of material loss, health, projects, etc. This phase can last from months to years depending on personal circumstances.
- reorganization phase. Once the traumatic experience has been integrated and dealing with the resulting consequences, people reorganize and rebuild their lives adapting to the new circumstances.
And it is that, this type of situation usually causes sequelae not only physical, but also psychological, being able to trigger anxious-depressive symptoms characterized by:
- High levels of anxiety and stress.
- To feel down.
- Loss of meaning of life.
- Changes in eating, sleeping and weight habits.
- Substance use.
- Suicidal ideation.
They can also trigger psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety disorders such as generalized anxiety, agoraphobia or panic disorder. Although the most common disorder is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“This disorder is characterized by a sudden and intense fear of a traumatic situation whose symptoms may include nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive and uncontrollable thoughts that generate high levels of stress and anxiety, so we end up avoiding any stimulus that brings us closer to the person to the traumatic event affecting the person in different areas of his life, be it family, friends, work…”, highlights Palacios.
The people most at risk of triggering a mental disorder in these situations are:
- People who have already been or are diagnosed with a mental disorder.
- People with little social and family support.
- People who have experienced some other similar traumatic situation
- Family psychopathological antecedents.
- People with low adaptability.
- People with a high perception of threat to their lives.
- People with a high level of dissociation after the experience.
How to return to “normal”: psychological and pharmacological support
Natural catastrophes, indicates the expert, generate emotions that make it difficult for a person to live “normally”. It takes a long period of time to assimilate and integrate the traumatic experience, because the damage is not only caused by the situation itself, but also by the consequences derived from it, such as loss of home, people, health…
- “It is not enough just to acceptancebut it is also necessary to rebuild and reorganize how we see the world, others and ourselves and the changes we have experienced and how they have affected our lives in order to integrate them”.
And “Integration does not mean denying that it has not happened or avoiding situations, people, conversations, thoughts that remind us of that fact, thus avoiding the suffering that it causes us, but rather, it is learning to live with suffering without it paralyzing us” . For this reason, the psychologist considers that psychological support and in some cases pharmacological support is “fundamental” to accompany people, guide them and support them in this process.
At present there are professionals who are in charge of caring for people who suffer this type of situation: psychologists specialized in disasters and emergencies. They act in the first 72 hours after the event, “since this time is what predisposes or not to the person developing a trauma.”
The purpose is that they recover a level of functioning similar to the one they had, restore the emotional level and provide resources in order to promote recovery and prevent possible psychological sequelae.
- “When this intervention does not have enough impact, second-order interventions are carried out in which psychotherapeutic processes are initiated in order to help the person to elaborate the duels and integrate the traumatic event.”
When should you see a specialist?
Not all people begin to experience symptoms immediately after the traumatic event, since in many cases they appear over time.
“During the catastrophe it is important that the person finds support and that they are not helpless in the midst of so much chaos, for this reason I believe that the psychosanitary help of the emergency teams is essential to emotionally accompany people in these situations,” he points out.
It is very important “even if there are no symptoms to prevent or treat the sequelae derived from the trauma and help the person to accept, integrate and reorganize the traumatic experience and the resulting consequences”.