Addressing stress and anxiety in the wake of disaster

Rebecca Neipp

News Review Staff Writer

Addressing stress and anxiety in the wake of disasterWith more than 10,000 aftershocks triggering constant reminders of our devastating earthquakes on July 4-5, mental health officials, professionals are putting together counseling resources and tips for those seeking coping mechanisms.

At the Red Cross Shelter, established at the Kerr McGee Center, Kern County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services has established an avenue for residents in crisis.

“Let’s start with what we can do for you,” said Dave Wagner, public information officer with the Red Cross. “A lot of times, people don’t recognize when they are in need of mental health services.

“We think of ourselves as tough human beings who are more resilient than maybe we really are.”

Someone who experiences the level of trauma induced during an earthquake can be conditioned to that stress to the point where they don’t recognize the symptoms of irritability, sleep-depravation, loss of appetite or anxiety.

The evidence of this distress can be seen from residents of Ridgecrest, Trona and the surrounding areas on virtually ever sphere of social media.

Bethany Smosna, a teacher and mentor with Sierra Sands School District, and a near-life-long resident of Ridgecrest, was among those caught off guard by the impact of the earthquakes.

“I have not experienced a tornado or a hurricane or even a significant flood, so I am not qualified to say that enduring one natural disaster is easier or worse than another,” wrote Smosna. “But I can speak to how the unpredictability of earthquakes, and the immediacy of large shaking events, fills you with a fear that never really leaves you.”

Even veterans of California’s renowned seismological events have expressed that recent events cannot be compared to the familiar shiftings of our nearby tectonic plates.

“We are all terrified — truly terrified — of experiencing an earthquake that is massive precisely BECAUSE smaller ones happen all the time,” said Smosna. “We know that another earthquake will come, but we have no idea when, or how big, or how many.”

Unlike hurricanes or fires, earthquakes are nearly impossible to predict (at least with any demonstrable level of accuracy).

“Once the storms are over, while we may certainly experience great loss, we know they are over … earthquakes are never really over.”

“With hurricanes and fires you can get out of the way,” agreed Wagner. “You never really know when the next earthquake is coming.”

Smosna noted that there appears to also by a psychological byproduct of earthquakes that are beyond an individual’s ability to grapple with emotionally.

“How many literary characters rejoiced when they finally got their feet on ‘solid ground?’ … earthquakes rock the very ground that we rely on to be solid.”

“Anyone who comes to us in need, we sit them down, do an intake, and allow someone with professional training to discern the kind of help they need,” said Wagner.

Also available at the Red Cross are partners offering spiritual counseling to those who request it.

The Kern County-based Victim Chaplain Association also brought from Bakersfield a host of volunteer counselors with expertise in grief and trauma services.

“We are embedded in the trauma unit of Kern Medical Center,” said Steve Truitt. “So our main mission is counseling people who are experiencing the worst day of their lives.”

Wagner noted that while there may be more people impacted by a metropolitan event, “having a fewer number of individuals impacted does not mean they are suffering any less. If your home is falling down after a 6.4 or a 7.1, that’s devastating.

“I see that people are trying to be strong, and may be reluctant to ask for help. That does not necessarily mean they don’t need help.”

Wagner said that those who don’t need shelter, but are too frazzled to walk back into their homes for fear of aftershocks, are welcome at the Red Cross shelter.

Maria Holm, a licensed clinical social worker at Ridgecrest Regional Hospital, posted an article on RRH’s Facebook page that addressed the upheaval that resulted from the earthquakes.

“In my experience, I found the majority of people who were in a public area struggled to find control of their situation. Those with children found it difficult to separate, because the reaction of the child sparked a need to provide a safe and close environment.”

Healthcare providers were faced with the challenge of providing patient care when they were scared, wrote Holm.

“This initial reaction is what we call Acute Stress Disorder, which tends to manifest immediately after a traumatic event.” Symptoms can include flashbacks, nightmares, dissociation, nausea (among other things) and persist for up to 30 days.

She recommended that anyone experiencing these symptoms engage in five activities that can help mitigate negative effects:

• Positive self-talk

• Talking with supportive people about fears and emotions

• Maintaining structure where possible — daily walks, chats, bedtimes and other routines that can reestablish stability

• Mindful activities — such as coloring, games, crafts and baking, to promote an escape from stress

• Taking time to sit for 3-5 minutes to just breathe — visualize colors, focus on the air traveling through our body providing life. “This allows a person to focus on self.”

“Your feelings of anxiety may be an indication that you need to prepare yourself and your family in the case of an emergency,” said Amanda Lockie, medical social worker at RRH.

She recommended making family plans about where to meet in case of separation. (For more detailed information see

Other coping techniques include focusing on facts, making connections with family and friends for emotional support, making self-care a priority, keeping busy and being helpful to others.

Anyone seeking counseling services can also reach the Rural Health Clinic at 760-499-3855.

Pictured: A nurse at RRH cuddles a therapy dog.

Story First Published: 2019-07-19