The Psychology of Trauma and Earthquakes

From Georgia to Boston and more specific in Washington, D.C. where this blogger resides an earthquake measuring 5.9 not only shook buildings, homes, vehicles and people but also the internal emotions of people.  When emotions are shaken by events that creates a sense of security to ones personal safety and well being our bodies are experiencing trauma.  In the initial phase of trauma the experience of an incident occurs.  Trauma may be from an auto accident, a fall, an assault and in the most current case an earthquake.  The level of trauma must create a sense of fear for life or safety not necessarily the reality of lose.  Trauma also requires the individual to feel fear, horror and hopelessness.  Although I have experienced 4 earthquakes: Memphis, Arkansas, Pepperdine University and today, each quake created a level of anxiety within.

A natural response to such trauma is the attempt to avoid what one is actually feeling as a result of being traumatized.  Individuals who are accustomed to being in control might struggle with accepting the fact that even an earthquake cause fear or a threat to there personal safety.  Witnessing or experiencing a traumatic event has a much greater impact on a person compared to hearing about the event from someone else or reading about the event.  In the case of the earthquake today felt from Georgia to Boston, at some level every citizen “experienced” the traumatic event for themselves.  It has been reported that over 700 square miles of citizens were in the impact zone of the earthquake.  In the experience of trauma, everyone may have been eyewitness to it, yet not every experience or recollection will be exactly the same.

Briefly let me address what typically occurs following a major traumatic episode.  Specific to earthquakes typically a less intense aftershock will happen.  Although the aftershock is less intense, the aftershock will actually cause each individual to possible experience Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.  PTSD  or the elevated anxiety begins almost as soon as the initial event ends to a lesser degree following earthquakes.  The normal DSM timeline for PTSD  range from acute which typically have its onset within 3 months of the triggering event to chronic which presents 3 months beyond the event and delayed which do not begin showing symptoms until 6 months beyond the triggering event.

How can you determine if you are experiencing PTSD as a result of the 5.9 earthquake?  Below is a quick to follow guide provided by Johns Hopkins Medical about PTSD Symptoms:

Key Symptoms
There are 3 cardinal symptom categories; 1) re-experiencing the event, 2) avoidance and numbing, and 3) increased arousal. *

1. Re-experiencing the event (1 must be present)

  • Distressing recollections
  • Nightmares
  • Physiological reactions to triggers
  • Psychological reactions to triggers

2.  Avoidance/Numbing (3 must be present)

  • Avoid conversations, activities, places or people
  • Selective amnesia
  • Withdrawal, detachment, loss of interest or hopelessness

3.  Increased Arousal (2 must be present)

  • Decreased sleep
  • Irritability/anger
  • Loss of ability to concentrate
  • Hypervigilance
  • Startle

3 Responses

  1. Not my first earthqake as I originally lived on the west coast & Hawaii. U deal with it and try to be safe. Even though it was here in MI, I didn’t feel it. We should remember that God’s power is great and mind how we treat the earth he entrusted in our care.

    • Do you recall some of your initial “feelings” when in the west coast or Hawaii quakes in terms of shock, fear, horror, calm, etc?

  2. Nice post Doc!
    Glad you all are ok. We need to get you over here to SoCal and get you use to earthquakes. Speaking of that, I would be interested in hearing your opinion on people living in earthquake heavy area’s and the lack of anxiety they might have toward them.
    Keep posting, I really enjoy reading them.


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