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Earthquakes Expose the Need to Cope With Stress, Fear and Loss

August 31, 1989|ALICIA CANTOR | Cantor is a family therapist practicing in Pasadena

As we are constantly reminded with each new jolt, earthquakes are a fact of life in Los Angeles, and learning to cope with them is important to our well-being.

Earthquakes remind us that our deepest fears may suddenly become reality, as in the loss of our loved ones, our homes or our possessions. Equally important is the psychological loss that exposes the illusion of personal invulnerability and our lack of control over the environment.

These elements, complicated by the problems intrinsic in recent immigrations, mean that many Latinos in the United States are much more vulnerable to stress and anxiety in a crisis.

Disaster unleashes a natural reaction called the "state of crisis."

People respond in three phases when a disaster strikes. The first phase is the moment of impact, which produces a rush of adrenaline that makes us excited and anxious and stirs a need to take action.

Next follows the phase of recoil, the most common expression of which is an increase in anxiety manifested by a short attention span, trouble concentrating, memory lapses and decreased productivity, or by physical symptoms such as insomnia, headache, stomachache, nausea and vomiting.

The final phase is the post-traumatic period in which we relive the disaster through nightmares or vivid images. The most common reaction is depression.

What can we do to resolve or alleviate the symptoms produced by natural disasters? Above all, we must allow ourselves to vent what we feel. Fear is a normal response to an actual threat. But if the fear persists for more than three months, it has become anxiety. We may counter anxiety by doing the following things:

- Becoming aware of our internal monologue, those things we think and tell ourselves. When we express our thoughts out loud by speaking with others, we can better understand what specifically increases our state of anxiety. This in turn allows us to take action, to resolve or diminish that anxiety.

- Using techniques to stop the mental processes that cause anxiety. This can be achieved by forcing ourselves to think about some other subject or project whenever we begin to feel anxious, or else to read a favorite novel, watch television or write a letter.

- Expressing our feelings, but without feeding the anxiety. Our focus should be kept on daily activities.

- Avoiding feeling helpless. This can be achieved by trying immediately to do something useful--helping a friend or neighbor, cooperating with the authorities, caring for children.

In contrast, children express anxiety through excessive crying, bed-wetting, hyperactive behavior, trouble sleeping and upset stomach, among other things. In order to help them, we must be honest and not hide the truth from them, while being mindful of the limits of their capacity to understand. It is important to take their fears seriously, even if they seem absurd to us. We must also show physical signs of affection by hugging or caressing them. Their parents' physical presence tends to reduce their anxiety and helps them feel more secure.

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