Kathryn Miles, Ph.D.

Kathryn Miles Ph.D.

The Eco-Narrative

Who You Calling Phobic?

Natural Disaster Trauma Is Real -- Especially When the Ground Shakes Beneath You

Posted May 06, 2015

Late last week, The Times of India reported an influx of trauma cases at the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital (JLNMCH) in Bhagalpur, India. Patients there reported a variety of symptoms ranging from vertigo and nausea to anxiety attacks and profound depression—all the result of April’s devastating earthquake in Nepal.

Bhagalpur India is nearly 400 miles away from the earthquake’s epicenter. Even still, tremors rocked buildings and infrastructure there.  A family of five, including two small children, was crushed to death when part of their home collapsed.  Roads and schools were left cracked. Electricity and phone service was interrupted in the area, too.  They’ve both been restored, but it will take much longer before the confidence of residents follows suit.

Doctors told The Times of India that the conditions seen in their patients may well be a result of seismophobia, or the fear of earthquakes.  It’s a term that has been gaining real traction in recent months, particularly in the United States.  Last fall, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) issued new maps detailing the seismic risk across the country.  Several areas, including major metropolitan cities like New York, were shown to be at a much higher risk for earthquake activity than had been previously predicted.  The organization also targeted 17 areas in the country at risk for what scientists call “induced seismicity,” or human-made earthquakes, believed to be caused largely by waste water injection and other activities associated with hydrologic fracturing, or fracking.  Understandably, the updated risk assessment has created a lot of fear for residents in these areas, some of whom are experiencing an average of three quakes a day.

But is seismophobia really the right term for the anxiety these residents are experiencing?  The American Psychiatric Association defines a phobia as “an abnormally fearful response to a danger that is imagined or is irrationally exaggerated.”  For residents in Himalayan communities, there is nothing excessive about a fear of continued and destructive aftershocks, which seismographers say could go on for over a year.  Nor is there anything irrational about the symptoms they are now experiencing in the wake of one of recent history’s most devastating disasters.

Significant advancements have been made in the study of natural disaster and trauma. After the 2008 Wenchuan earthquake in China, scholars found that nearly 20% of survivors there presented with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  A 2013 New Zealand study found that survivors of the Christchurch quake experienced cognitive impairment that led to poor decision making and increased accidents long after tremors had subsided.  Over a year after the Fukushima earthquake and subsequent nuclear disaster, at least half of residents in the region presented with PTSD and 2/3 of residents demonstrated symptoms commonly associated with depression.

The U.S. Veterans Administration (V.A.) has led much of the research into disaster-prompted PTSD.  Researchers there say that a variety of factors can impact just how significantly an earthquake affects the psychological wellbeing of those who survive it: from the magnitude of the quake itself to the starkness of the destruction it causes. Symptoms can also be exacerbated by betrayal trauma, a secondary trauma that arises when individuals feel that they have been let down by the institutions intended to protect them.  That may be one reason why residents of Fukushima were so hard hit: not only did they experience the trauma of a large earthquake, but many were left questioning whether the government did everything it could to shore up its nuclear power plants.

In American communities were fracking is commonplace, that kind of betrayal trauma runs deep.  During a recent visit to Oklahma (which ranks 4th nationwide in the number of fracking wells), residents there told me they felt like their safety has been sacrificed in favor of economic opportunity.  They told me that what frightens them the most is not only the threat of a major earthquake but the fact that that quake is almost entirely preventable.

We don’t have a good lexicon for what these trauma survivors are experiencing—but we should.  Scientists in fields ranging from meteorology to hydrology have told us again and again that human-made disasters are on the rise.  Yes, we need to shore up our physical infrastructures in anticipation for these calamities.  But we also need to protect our personal scaffolding as well.  For many, that may be the hardest investment to make.