Anxiety During the Quakes

If you’re just joining my blog, welcome. You can read about my journey with depersonalization by clicking on the link to the depersonalization tag, and you can read about my experiences during the Christchurch earthquake and aftershocks sequences by clicking on the link to the Christchurch earthquakes category.

As we approach the ninth (really?) anniversary of the 22 February 2011 earthquake that killed 185 people, injured many more, and forever changed the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, I tend to start writing more about those events. I wrote about how I felt on the fifth anniversary of the 22 February 2011 quake; the sixth anniversary; the seventh anniversary; and finally, the eighth anniversary, so if you have a few spare moments, you can look over how my views of the anniversary change from year to year.

After the earthquake itself, we had a great many aftershocks, and being a generally anxious person to begin with, my flight-or-fight systems kicked into overdrive. I’d get overly anxious if there was an earthquake. I’d get overly anxious if there was a loud rumbling noise, like a plane landing at the airport near our house, or a truck driving by. I’d even have these sharp pangs of anxiety when even in the relatively ground-steady environment of home (Chicagoland). It seemed my system was extremely sensitive to any little change.

Waiting for the other shoe to drop, or, in this case, the next quake to strike, was, and is, not a healthy space to live in. Slowly, I grew more used to the quakes, and when they were lower in magnitude — say anything below a 5.5 — I tended to be okay when they were happening frequently. We Cantabrians even came up with a game to cope: calling the magnitude and location before the scientists published them. It did help make the experience a little more bearable.

I never went hysterical with earthquakes. When my anxiety fired, I definitely went into a mode to survive first and react second. During the large and constant aftershocks we had on and after 22 February 2011, I somehow managed to panic in the moments after. One major aftershock after we evacuated the school, I remember grabbing two students and pressing us all against Jacqui’s car after it struck. It was so violent that people were falling down all over the place, and I was trying to stop us getting hurt. Dealing with shock at the moment, I felt not much of anything other than trying to keep people, and myself, safe.

After later large aftershocks, I would sometimes cry. It seemed the only way to release the shock of the moment. Other times, I would have to get out of the building and stand outside. A few times, I did this for hours at a time. One time, after a particularly nasty early morning with 2 5-pointers back-to-back, I stood outside in my pyjamas and a hoodie for an hour in the drizzle at about 6 AM. Another time, after a large aftershock, I sat outside in the back yard on a wicker chair, as far away from anything that could fall over as I could, and watched the windows flexing in each aftershock.

I’d get anxious walking into buildings. My eyes would scan for the nearest escape points, and my mind would burn them into memory. If a quake struck now, where would I duck, cover, hold? Where would I be safe? Where could I get out of the building once the shaking stopped? Where was there another exit just in case?

Even after the 22 February 2011 quake merely damaged, and not totalled, our work building, and the engineers told me the building (the former regional headquarters for the New Zealand Police) was engineered to withstand a magnitude 9 earthquake, I never felt comfortable being inside that building. I would be all alone on the ground floor on Fridays after Jacqui left for the day, and those times were the most difficult. My anxiety would unravel a million different what-if scenarios, none of which ever came into play.

Another large cause of anxiety and stress was the New Zealand Qualifications Authority’s really crappy response to the whole thing. But that’s a discussion for another blog another day (although I do think I covered it elsewhere).

The 13 June 2011 pre-shock, a rather large quake in the high 5’s, saw us evacuating the building again, and luckily something told Noel to send everyone home. My anxiety levels were through the roof again, but I was happy to go home where at least I felt a bit safer.

Luckily, I was heading in the door when I heard the second, larger 6.4 quake coming, and I sounded like John Candy in The Great Outdoors, out of breath, pushing myself against the alcove and an outer wall next to the inside of the front door, yelling, “Big quake! Big quake!” and then bracing as it hit. Hearing Noel’s mother screaming on the phone while Noel was talking to her and the ground shaking made my anxiety heighten, and, again, I needed to get outside for some fresh air and to calm down.

(One of the more bizarre happenings of that day: the Christchurch City Council was cleaning out the drains on our block. A worker came up to me and said, “Wow, that was a big quake. Do you have a beer?” Another worker told me to ignore that, and we needed to put something heavy on our toilet lids, making sure they were down, while they flushed the system out. I busied myself by putting heavy rocks on Jacqui and James’s toilets in their house, then on our toilets in our house, all while the aftershocks were continuing. I did forget to tell Jacqui and James that the drain-flushing had occurred, and they arrived home to wonder why there were large rocks on their toilet lids. At least that brought a little humor to the day.)

After a while, I stopped feeling that adrenaline rush that comes with flight-or-fight responses. It felt, I explained to my doctor, then counselors, then anyone who listened, like my adrenal glands had completely burned themselves out. And that lasted for a very long time. I do wonder if that was part of the trigger for my depersonalization; no longer feeling that dropping sensation, or a rush of adrenaline, my body turned to a more sinister way of coping with anxiety: by shutting everything down.

I still did get the odd panic attack in the middle of the night, and when I did, I got out of bed and walked around to try to burn the anxiety away. Unlike panic attacks I had before the earthquakes, I knew that these were irrational responses to some stimulus or another, and I could calm myself down after a while telling myself that. And unlike the panic attacks I had before the earthquakes, I hadn’t really experienced a life-or-death situation before; in the 22 February 2011 quake, after being thrown across the room and getting the wind knocked out of me, I felt something like angel wings surround me, and after briefly thinking about how glad I was that I at least got to talk to my Mom and Grandma a few days before and tell them that I loved them, I resigned myself to death. Weirdly enough, death didn’t scare me, or cause me anxiety, and all my panic attacks pre-quake were in a response to the fear of dying (among other things) while all my panic attacks post-quake were with the knowledge I probably wasn’t dying. That was probably one of the good things to come out of the quakes themselves.

When the large Kaikoura quake hit just past midnight on the 14 November 2016 — a 7.8 that was a strong, rolling motion for about 2 minutes in Christchurch — I didn’t feel any anxiety much whatsoever. Noel went pinballing down the hallway to check on Sissy mid-quake (then wondered why he had bruises everywhere a few hours later), but I sat up in bed and waited for the shaking to stop. Around the 90 second mark, I do admit I thought the earth was never going to stop shaking. And after the shaking stopped and I fiddled with my iPad — by that point, I was shaking, more from being woken up so suddenly from a deepening sleep — the anxiety kicked in a little bit. I knew we were far enough away from wherever the epicenter was to know we were okay, but it still was yet another shock we didn’t need.

Now, the aftershock sequence to the major quakes we have had in various locations in New Zealand have decreased, so when we do get a quake, and my anxiety fires, it does feel like it is a return to those days 9 years ago when it seemed to be going off every few seconds to minutes with every new aftershock we experienced. But now, interestingly enough, after that first initial shock, I don’t feel the anxiety so much. I think that now I know what to expect, I can cope with it a lot better. Time will tell.

It’d be interesting to hear from anyone else who has experienced this kind of journey with anxiety and natural disasters, especially if it triggered depersonalization or another dissociative disorder after the event. If you have experienced this and would like to share (even if it is a blog you wrote), please contact me on my Contact Me page.