Anxiety in elders can traumatise the young. Don’t add to their fears in a natural disaster situationSpring crept up on Sikkim with rather tentative steps this year, not quite sure whether to allow itself in or whether to allow the pre-Spring battering of hail and chill to stay on a little longer. And even as the State was wondering how violently the weather Gods can send down hail on its fields, the earth heaved to the Great Earthquake that devastated Nepal on 25 April and then, within a fortnight, found release from another epicentre and rattled Sikkim even as it further pulverised the already down on the mat Nepal. Sikkim has been spared widespread damage to its physical infrastructure, but its mental health has taken a beating. The 18 September 2011 earthquake had not yet receded from the mind that the Nepal temblor shook things up. There have been other earthquakes around the world since the one here in 2011, but those have been distant and not as intimately experienced. The Nepal earthquake, on the other hand, was not only physically experienced by Sikkim, but also emotionally suffered.
The wall-to-wall coverage on news channels and the profusion of shares and likes on social-media kept the anxiety levels high and the trauma alive, which is perhaps why the earthquake of 12 May, even though much weaker than the 25 April temblor, caused more panic in Sikkim. Nerves, which had been kept frayed with an overdose of earthquake updates, snapped when a substantial heave occurred.
What was physically damaged by the two quakes will get repaired or replaced over time, the mental toll of earthquakes will however fester for longer and most likely remain unaddressed. Of course, with time, people will get over the trauma, but it would be advisable if the situation was addressed in time and proper counsel offered now so that panic, which can add to the devastation-potential of a natural disaster, is avoided when the next disaster visits. This has been a season of natural disasters - from hailstorms to vicious thunder-squalls to earthquakes and aftershocks, people in the region have been experiencing nature at its most extreme within a rather condensed period of time, and this, as the recent days have proven, have triggered anxiety and panic attacks. Hospitals in the State have received patients with such complaints, but the condition is obviously much wider-spread than just the people brought into the emergency wards. The reason why this condition needs to be addressed is because natural disasters are known to trigger widespread panic and loss of morale. Better awareness can avoid these situations because in the wake of a real disaster, panic and loss of morale, can prove fatal handicaps. The overpowering mindlessness of panic was seen around the State in hyperventilating parents rushing to pull their children out of classrooms and in the inexplicable irresponsibility with which a string of schools sent children away after the quake on 12 May. Parents cannot be faulted for worrying, but what they need to be made to understand is that their panic infects their children with trauma. Children, any psychiatrist will tell you, are more resilient emotionally against natural disasters because their understanding of life and death and loss is not as developed as in adults. Their emotions invariably mirror those of their parents or the elders around them. The level of trauma in children depends on the amount of fear and stress the parents or adults around them exhibit. If parents show fear, the children will be afraid. If the parents are stressed, the children will also be tense. When an earthquake strikes, children are unlikely to panic unless their teacher [if they are in class] or parents [if they are at home] panic. Clearly then, the elders should keep consciously calm around children.
It is not easy to stay calm in the face of shaking buildings. Hence, while the reflex response to a natural disaster situation cannot be controlled, more effort should be made to avoid working oneself into a panic in the wake of a disaster. To begin with, minimize the anxiety levels by balancing your intake of information on the disaster. Listen to the news to stay informed and keep apprised of the situation, but don’t obsessively inundate yourself with information and don’t allow the easily excitable TV reporters to pass on their penchant for sensationalism to you. Don’t accept every chain message or “tip-off” at face value. Don’t take rumours as fact and, given the situation, double-check always. Don’t let the disaster take control of your life and upset routines because allowing it to do so reinforces fears. Hence, closing down schools unless the school building has been rendered unsafe, is the wrong call. It is important to make children understand how to stay safe, but don’t, ever, try to make them understand by overreacting or scaring them too much. To repeat, worry, but please don’t panic.