Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Earthquakes, Tsunamis and Typhoons, Oh My!

My husband and I have a theory. It posits that any given person, when contemplating earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, is ok with one, has a healthy fear of another and is absolutely terrified of the third. Growing up, as he did, in the midwest, earthquakes are not such a big deal to him, but hurricanes scare him to death. I, on the other hand, grew up in New England, where hurricanes hit but not hard. What scares the daylights out of me is tornadoes.

To be fair, however, our theory is incomplete. While it is true that I have recurring nightmares about tornadoes, I also have recurring nightmares about being covered by waves of water. My husband points out that, when I have these, it probably means I need to go to the bathroom. My worst nightmares involve water spouts -- tornadoes over water. I don't have them very often, but they are very consistent and consistently scary.

You might think, then, that the tsunamis that hit Samoa yesterday and the typhoons in the Philippines and Vietnam, with all of their flooding, would be very scary for me to contemplate. In fact, they probably would be, if I could bring myself to contemplate them, but I can't. And this is how I know that my fear of giant waves and of unrestrained water is actually not pathological.

If this were truly a dangerous phobia, I would hear about a tsunami and find myself thinking about it all the time. I would "live" it in my mind. It would trigger more nightmares. But in fact, I know my fears and have control of them sufficiently that I know not to do that. I can bring myself to imagine what the earthquakes in Indonesia and Samoa must have felt like, or the rain and winds from the typhoon in the Philippines and Vietnam. I can contemplate the death and destruction in all three places. But when it comes to the flooding and the tsunamis, I simply cannot see them happening in my mind's eye. I cannot put myself there. My mind is very good at protecting itself.

I was recently involved in a Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) where some of the participants kept talking about how awful the incident must be for others. They were saying things like, "I just keep thinking what he must be going through" and "I imagine how awful it is for her and I just cry all the time." My partner for the CISD had what I thought was a terrific way of responding to this. During the teaching phase, he said, "Let me suggest to you that you do not have to try on other people's trauma."

I am horrified and yes, a little terrified by what I see on the news today. But I know enough to know that I don't have to try it on to care.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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