How your brain handles an earthquake II


Christchurch. Day 7

It’s day seven. No reported human deaths from the earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, but aftershocks from last weekend’s quake continue. It’s been a widely reported event with even uber-blogger Chris Brogan publishing a post encouraging support.

Some things are beginning to return to normal, and people will start to pick up and carry on. However, one of the effects of the earthquake has been a more than 300% increase in heart attacks. Why? The reasons behind it are especially relevant for us.

Heart attacks

You can read the article here, and the key bit is this:

Dr Smyth said the service usually dealt with two or three heart-attack patients a day, but since Saturday had been seeing eight to 10 daily.
“It’s undoubtedly due to the quake. It’s well documented that natural disasters do this. It’s not people panicking, just the sudden surge of adrenaline.”
Adrenaline damaged the inside arteries of the heart, creating blood clots that caused heart attacks, he said.

Dr Smyth links the heart attacks to  sudden adrenaline surges, which people may experience each time there is another aftershock. We’ve covered here what goes on when a sudden event like this happens, particularly as it relates to the chemical cascade your brain generates to cope with the event, using a tricky little feedback loop called the HPA axis.

What’s a little different in Christchurch now is that this isn’t a one-off episode anymore, but a series of earthquakes. What this means for the average earthquake-affected Christchurch brain is significant. Here’s why.

No end in sight?

By the time you read this, there will have been more than 400, since Saturday when the first big one hit. That’s 70 earthquakes a day.  70! That’s huge. One every 20 minutes or so, and suggestions that there may be another big one coming. Christchurch brains aren’t getting a chance to de-stress and are experiencing general adaptation to higher levels of stress.

With each aftershock comes an adrenaline surge to cope with the possible demands of the situation. Ten, twenty minutes later, the adrenaline starts to subside, just in time for the next aftershock. Alongside this is activation of the sympathetic nervous system which is like your brain putting its foot on the gas pedal of a car – all systems are accelerated. Christchurch brains are stuck on a roller coaster of adrenaline and nervous system acceleration.

Now if this chemistry was activated willingly, like it is when people skydive, it might be all beer and skittles but, unfortunately, it isn’t, and it’s only part of the story.


In Part I we talked about Acute Stress. This is a severe reaction to an event but is generally short-lived. As a diagnosis, it fits squarely in the Anxiety Disorders camp. Other anxiety disorders are things like panic attacks, phobias, obsessive compulsive disorder and the like. Key to them is a feeling of a loss, or lack, of control.

In Christchurch, there is the double whammy of aftershocks and adrenaline, coupled with lack of control, because we don’t know when the next shock is coming and when it does, if it is another big one! The result is that the brain copes by increasing sympathetic nervous system activation across the board, all the time. Heart rate goes up, blood pressure goes up, respiration goes up – all the time. In addition, there’s the adrenaline being produced regularly and, because the stress is now prolonged, cortisol.

So as well as more frequent surges in adrenaline, there is more stress hormone all the time, and the heart is working harder due to sympathetic nervous system activation, all the time. Phew.

Heart attacks therefore, are not surprising – Christchurch is awash in adrenaline and cortisol. Given that, it’s also likely that

  • mental resources are depleted
  • it’s more tense at work and home and small things more quickly become big things
  • people are short on sleep and so performance is down. We know too that lack of sleep produces cortisol, which contributes to lack of sleep
  • people are looking for explanations and predictions for the future to gain some sense of control – it’s a good time for superstitious thinking to begin.

So here’s the take home bit

There’s no doubt that this is a stressful time in Christchurch. Question is, what to do? A good stock of Complex Vitamin B is generally a safe bet for stress. But more especially…

Reduce cortisol through

  1. touch, especially massage
  2. meditation
  3. laughing
  4. black tea?
  5. and look for ways to get better sleep

Reduce adrenaline through

  1. exercise
  2. cutting back on, or even out, caffeine
  3. avoiding high stimulation activities

Increase a sense of control through

  1. focusing on things you can control, rather than things (like tectonic plates!) that you can’t
  2. look at a broader picture – it helps with perspective
  3. keep active, physically and mentally, with good diet
  4. stay in touch with other people so you can talk about stress and be connected
  5. see past today – this helps us stay hopeful and positive for the future

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Adrenaline, Sympathetic nervous system, HPA axis, Cortisol

Any other suggestions?

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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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4 Responses to How your brain handles an earthquake II

  1. Colin Brown says:

    Visit It gives a visual contact to something you can’t see.
    Two good contrasts are shown between this reference:
    the original earthquake, and this reference:
    the latest aftershock. It helps to keep things in perspective.

  2. Lyn Clark says:

    Thanks for the useful coping tips. 4 months post quake and the adrenaline is still coming. For a while we were relaxing a little and thinking the worst was over, but then came Boxing Day and a nasty 4.9 quake centered in the city. For most of us here it’s been a wake up call reminding us that the aftershocks are not over and there could be some significant stress ahead. What’s happened is that our sensitivity to distant rumbling noises is again heightened and we are on alert again. We put on our brave faces and carry on but we are a little weary of the constant reminders of “the big one”. Any thoughts?

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