August 23rd, 2011
04:47 PM ET
Tuesday's earthquake was an uncomfortable albeit brief déjà-vu for many in New York City and Washington, D.C.
Workers dashed out of buildings, many of them worried that the tremors from a 5.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the East Coast was a bomb or terrorist attack.
When Ellen Rea first felt her New York apartment shake, she dismissed it as a neighbor running on the treadmill. The tremors got stronger and a door in her apartment popped open. She panicked.
“I’m not a person who gets scared, but I thought of 9/11 and thought what the hell happened?” Rea said.
She remembered being near the World Trade Center nearly 10 years ago and coming home with the ashes in her hair.
“It actually surprised me how those thoughts came up,” she said. “I’m a tough New Yorker. I was really surprised that was the first thought.”
People who lived through the attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington most likely have a low level of fear and anxiety that generally stays in the back of their psychological experience, but can be triggered, said Nadine Kaslow, professor of psychiatry at Emory University School of Medicine.
For some, a sudden traumatic event such as Tuesday’s earthquake can be a trigger of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, although usually not the full-blown condition. They may feel panic, anxiety and fear, and even upsetting memories of past trauma.
“I guess I was frightened. I’m not a scaredy-cat or anything. I didn’t think of an earthquake. I really thought something happened again,” Rea said.
Rea darted out of her chair and looked across the street to the police academy to see the reaction there. When she saw no activity, she calmed down.
She tweeted later: “For the people laughing at ny'ers b/c it was a small quake – you weren't here for 9/11 and didn't know if this was another bomb.”
That’s the worst part about PTSD, said Kaslow.
“The suddenness of it, the unpredictability and unexpected nature of it is going to bring up the worst for people,” she said.
The initial panic and fear will go away for most people once they realize it’s an earthquake and not a repeat of a past terrorist attack, she said.
When Alex Priest, a director of marketing at ad company, Genius Rocket felt the tremors on the 7th floor of its office in Bethesda, Maryland, he also suspected a terrorist attack. He and his coworkers sprinted out of the building.
“I was young when the attacks happened,” said Priest, 22, about 9/11. “For the vast majority of my formative years, we’ve just had this national security mindset. There are terrorists out there.”
“Just being in that environment and having that as a constant issue in the news and because of the 9/11 anniversary, the first thing that comes into your mind anytime something bad happens is ‘Oh my God, is it terrorist attack?’”
After a few moments, rational thinking returns.
PTSD can become a problem if a person feels numb, detached, frightened, anxious or experience difficulty concentrating. They may re-experience the original traumatic event in flashbacks – all this is called acute stress disorder reaction. Psychiatrists typically consider these kinds of problems PTSD if they persist for more than four weeks after the event.
There are ways to manage your reaction. A key strategy is to talk about your anxieties with people you trust; it may be helpful to get a counselor if you have been traumatized before, Kaslow said. You may need medication if you have persistent sleep disturbances and depression. Exercise, yoga and meditation can also help calm you down.
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