Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Christchurch Earthquakes

Little did we know when the Talking Therapy website was developed in 2009, and we published an article on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, that Christchurch would soon become a natural disaster zone, with events occurring that would cause prolonged and repetitive fear and helplessness, making us all susceptible to post traumatic stress.

Since September 2010 when the first earthquake struck at Talking Therapy we have been working with the people of Canterbury who have been dealing with many different earthquake experiences, and who are experiencing the numerous and varying symptoms of post trauma. Many have developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

While our experiences are different, there are also similarities in the way the earthquakes have affected the people of Christchurch. Those seeking trauma counselling are experiencing symptoms that fit into three broad clusters of experience, which make up post trauma reactions. For some these develop into Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

1. The experience of “I can’t get the earthquakes out of my head”.

Images, flashbacks, thoughts and nightmares flood back of experiences of one or several of the earthquakes and what happened. Sometimes these experiences are accompanied by feelings and bodily sensations that are so strong it is like reliving those moments all over again. And with so many earthquakes and aftershocks occurring the reliving goes on and on causing enormous stress and exhaustion. These are the experiences that make up the intrusive symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

2. A group of behaviours and feelings that are about “I just don’t feel like myself anymore”.

The usual things in life, work, socialising or doing things around the house no longer feel enjoyable. People struggle to go to the places they were when a quake struck, or don’t want to go into unknown or big buildings or into what is left of town, not wanting to be reminded of or talk about what happened and what has been lost. Some feel different and separate from others and life in general. All of these things can put a lot of stress and strain on relationships. Sometimes people are so cut off from themselves that the signs of distress come out in other ways, for example getting skin rashes, headaches or other physical problems. These behaviours and feelings are the avoidance symptoms that are part of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

3. The experience of “I can’t let go and relax, I’m waiting for the next one”.

Cantabrians have lived through so many unexpected, frightening earthquakes and may be living on high alert or on guard, waiting for the next earthquake to strike, and not only anxious, jumpy and watchful but also quick to feel angry or irritable. Concentration or “thinking straight” is affected, and sleep problems are widespread. Panic attacks, headaches and depression cause people to worry about what is happening to themselves and often fear they are going crazy. These hyperarousal symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder are exhausting.

Previous Trauma

At Talking Therapy we are finding a large number of people presenting for earthquake related counselling have experienced previous trauma at earlier stages of their lives. Those that have experienced abuse (physical, sexual or psychological) as a child or adult, sudden and untimely deaths of loved ones, experienced or witnessed other life threatening events, car or other serious accidents etc are prone to experiencing significant post traumatic reactions with the ongoing events in Christchurch.

The Road to Recovery

Because of the ongoing nature of the earthquakes recovery is not as straightforward for many as it may have been if there had been one earthquake. As with any situation involving ongoing trauma, full recovery cannot take place until the trauma is over and a sense of safety is achieved.

Because at Talking Therapy we are experienced in working with trauma we are able to meet these different requirements. The counselling that is delivered at Talking Therapy is adjusted to fit with living with ongoing trauma and the uncertain situation in Christchurch, and to fit with the needs of each person. Counselling for earthquake related issues is what many Cantabrians need to manage and get through these very stressful and unprecedented times.

Talking Therapy receives funding from the Ministry of Social Development for free earthquake counselling.

If you would like to make an appointment with one of our registered psychotherapists please phone 027 722 5522 or email

A further article on earthquake related counselling will be posted on this site soon. It will focus on the approach we take at Talking Therapy when we work with the people of Christchurch to cope with and understand what is happening to them during these stressful times.

If you are worried that post traumatic stress disorder is an issue for you or someone close to you and would like to start to make changes you can contact Talking Therapy.

Book an Appointment

Call or email us on:

027 722 5522