THE EARTHQUAKE IN ORANGE COUNTY : Psychiatrists Offer Advice : Coping With Fear: the Real Aftershock

October 02, 1987|LOIS TIMNICK and LANIE JONES | Times Staff Writers

As the earthquake rumbled through Southern California early Thursday morning, a 3-year-old child panicked, convinced that a monster was trying to break into the house.

But in another home, a 5-year-old giggled, "This is fun," and calmly instructed his frightened parents to get under the table and "curl up like a baby with your arms up around your head."

And in Tustin, more than two hours after the temblor hit, health worker Linda Lew suddenly got "teary-eyed. I just needed to be with people. I thought 'Wow, that was something serious.' "

Reactions of Southern Californians to Thursday morning's earthquake varied widely, but psychiatrists and psychologists said most people will share some of the same emotions over the next few days or weeks--anxiety and lingering fears.

"Many people will continue to feel anxious after the earthquake is over, as though another quake is going to come, as though there will be widespread destruction " said Dr. Spencer Eth, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the USC School of Medicine.

Post-Traumatic Stress

Dr. Calvin J. Frederick, a psychiatrist at UCLA and the Veterans Administration Medical Center, warned that as many as two-thirds of the population "will experience some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder over the next few weeks."

Symptoms of the disorder could include not eating well, difficulty in sleeping and nightmares about earthquakes or other terrifying events, experts said.

Frederick, an internationally known mental health expert on disasters and their aftermath, predicted that 15% to 20% of those cases will be serious enough to cause problems that require professional counseling.

Still, most people should recover quickly from the shock of the quake on their own, he and other psychiatrists said.

They said anxiety is a normal response after a terrifying event--be it an earthquake, or a near-miss on the freeway--but very few adults or children should be permanently traumatized.

Talk to Friends

If fears about the earthquake do persist for several days, the best way to cope is to talk to friends and reassure oneself that loved ones were not hurt, the psychiatrists said.

"Don't drink coffee or do anything that increases tension," Eth recommended. Instead, "try to relax, lie down, think happy thoughts, reassure oneself that family and loved ones are fine and go about your daily life--and for the vast majority of people, it (the anxiety) should subside," he said.

Children are not likely to be unusually upset if their parents remained calm during the temblor, several psychiatrists said.

"By and large children react to the responses of adults around them," Eth said. "If an adult is keeping calm, there's not much reaction from the kids. Of course, that generalization would not apply to a kid where the house is falling apart, or where a kid sees people hurt," he cautioned.

Conversely, if parents panicked during the quake and remain worried about future earthquakes, their children will pick up those fears, the psychiatrists said.

"The first thing parents have to do is stay calm themselves," said Los Angeles child psychologist Robert Butterworth. "If the earth is shaking and the parents are shaking, the children's world is in trouble." Eth said he had heard of a 10-year-old girl who became hysterical Thursday morning when she saw her grandmother getting upset about the quake. "When the earthquake passed, the grandmother tried to comfort her . . . but she continued to be upset," Eth said.

But if the children do appear upset, parents may need to leave a light on in their rooms or let small children sleep with them for the next few nights, Butterworth said.

And if they start wetting the bed or have other fears, "hold 'em close," said Dr. William Arroyo, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at Los Angeles County-USC Hospital. "Reassure them that you'll do everything to make sure they are safe the next time. Be there when they need you."

Arroyo said he was worried about two groups who could be deeply affected by the quake--people who were at California State University, Los Angeles, where one person was killed by a piece of falling concrete, and those who have survived a previous traumatic event, be it an earthquake or a rape.

People who lived through the Sylmar quake in 1971 may be "at greater risk to develop symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder," Arroyo said.

After the 1971 quake, Frederick said he received 600 to 700 calls overnight from parents whose children were hiding under beds or afraid to go to school.

One of the best ways to handle fears about earthquakes is to plan how to react in the next temblor, said Dr. Thomas Rusk, an associate clinic professor of psychiatry at UC San Diego.

'You Prepare Yourself'

"The best way to handle your fear is preventively--by learning what are reasonable steps you can take as best as is humanly possible. . . . The more practice, the more rehearsal, like a lifeboat drill, you prepare yourself."

Rusk said he and his family have selected a doorway in their home where they are to gather in a quake. In July, 1986, when a 6.0 quake hit Palm Springs, "we found ourselves naked under that doorway and waited it out," Rusk said.

"My wife, my daughter, myself, we just huddled there. It was sort of scary but we were supporting each other, saying, 'This ain't no fun. They warned us about this when we left the East Coast.' It was gallows humor," Rusk said, but it was comforting to huddle together and to know they were prepared.

Besides, fears about earthquakes are normal, Rusk added. "It's perfectly logical and reasonable to be afraid of earthquakes. It's a real significant danger. . . . If you're not afraid," he said, "you're trying to kid yourself."

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