Earthquakes: Some Major Aftershocks May be in the Brain

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Nothing leaves a person feeling as helpless as an earthquake. While covering science for the Los Angeles Times years ago I experienced many quakes, and the human toll was immeasurable. Shortly after a major quake struck the small town of Coalinga, Calif. in 1983, a man who had survived the temblor quietly told his neighbors goodbye, lay down on a couch in what was left of his home and died, apparently of heart failure.

Most research has focused on the long term mental impact of disasters, like survivor guilt, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which can surface years after the event. But the New Zealand study suggests that less dramatic effects may be nearly as significant, although there is no way to tell from this research how long those will last.

And this is clearly a case of one-size-does-not-fit-all. The researchers note that the performance of participants in their research was not consistent. Some were more likely to "zone out" than others, depending partly on how the quake impacted them personally, and of course no two personalities were the same.

"People respond to stressors differently," the study concludes. "Those who experience depression are more likely to become conservative, whereas those who experience greater anxiety are more likely to become impulsive."

But the study suggests that anyone who goes through a disaster is likely to have some mental aftershocks that could impact their performance, especially when critical skills are required.

"The results confirm psychological theories regarding the impact of disasters on performance, and these theories may help explain the increase in traffic fatalities and accidents after disasters," the researchers concluded.

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