PTSD: the emotional damage caused by catastrophe

Published: Oct. 11, 2018 at 9:16 PM AKDT
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When disaster strikes, the physical damage to roads and buildings can be repaired, but often the emotional damage caused by living through a catastrophe can last for a lifetime.

Maggie Holeman knows that all too well.

Holeman owns and operates a bed-and-breakfast in Hope, but back in the 1970s, she faced the challenge of breaking down gender barriers by becoming the first female firefighter at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.

But this tough woman faces a fear that began in her childhood. It's the overwhelming fear of earthquakes.

"If I hear an earthquake or feel an earthquake, my heart is just pounding-- my legs get weak," Holeman said.

It began when she was 12 years old when the 9.2-magnitude Good Friday earthquake struck southcentral Alaska.

Holeman, her mother and brother fled from their house on 16th Avenue and rode out the quake in the street, which she says felt like it would never stop. "I think the roar of the earth moving and the uncontrollable, not being able to make yourself safe in any way was one of the most threatening things," Holeman said.

Even though it's been more than 50 years since that terrifying experience, Holeman says even small quakes set off a feeling of panic.

"So, I tell my friends today, if you're around me and an earthquake hits, and I start running, do not follow me because I don't know what I'm doing, because I'm just in major panic at that time," Holeman said.

Maggie Holeman is not alone. A study published in 2014 by the National Institutes of Health reported that research showed that up to 87 percent of people who survived a catastrophic earthquake showed signs of PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder.

"When you experience a disaster, the emotional part of the brain records it, so that memory is there. It's embedded" said Ebony McClain, PhD, a licensed professional counselor in Anchorage who treats people with PTSD.

McClain said disaster survivors often face a lifetime challenge. "For most people who have a post-traumatic stress experience, it is a life-altering event. The brain records it in such a way that it changes the brain makeup and the way that you experience future events."

McClain said Maggie Holeman's reaction to earthquakes today is part of the emotional aftershock from her childhood experience. "So, what's happened with her is that every time there's a minor earthquake, she's re-experiencing the '64 earthquake as if it's happening in that moment, which would bring you to panic," McClain said.

McClain says there really is not an effective way to emotionally prepare yourself for a disaster, except to be "physically prepared" by stocking up on food and emergency supplies to try to reduce the anxiety.

McClain also suggests talking to your children when they are old enough to understand. "I think having a plan with your family, as soon as children are able to comprehend a safety plan around 4 years old, you start teaching them in the event of an emergency, here is what our family does and I think that reduces the anxiety linked to the possibility of an event or the event when it's actually happening."

Maggie Holeman says preparing with emergency food and supplies is one way she copes with fear of earthquakes, but she knows it's something that she'll have to deal with every time the ground shakes.

"Earthquakes terrify me" she said. "Yeah, it definitely has an effect for the rest of your life."

To learn more about research into PTSD after major earthquakes, click