How To Stay Stable When There Is So Much Instability

13 March, 2011

The earth has literally been moving from under our feet. This creates instability on multi-levels. What can you do for yourself to find your own inner stability amongst all the outer instability? I hope to answer some of those questions for you in this blog.

Wherever you are in the world, you have heard about the Christchurch earthquake that happened on Tuesday 22nd February. I have a network of friends and colleagues in Christchurch, who thankfully are all safe. Since then, we have had the news of the earthquake and Tsunami in Japan, on Friday 11th March. I live in Wellington, New Zealand, in the north Island, and I lived in Japan many years ago, and have a number of good friends still there, who thankfully are all safe as well.

Since the major earthquake in Christchurch we have had two small earthquakes in Wellington, which although apparently are quite normal, after the disaster in Christchurch took on new meaning and put the fear into most people - including me. After the disaster in Japan I turned on my phone when coming out of the cinema to a barrage of texts from friends and family back home, telling me they were worried sick and checking I was OK - as there had been Tsunami warnings for the whole of the Pacific including New Zealand.

I feel like I am living in natural disaster land, and over the last nearly three weeks since Christchurch, have been triggered into fear and worry on several occasions. Facebook has become an awesome resource for instantly getting in touch with people to see if they are safe, and for letting people back home know that I am, for sharing the latest news updates and for an instant connection with people when you are lying in bed during an earthquake and feeling unsettled and not sure what to do!

My point is, that if you are a person who cares, and especially if you live in NZ or Japan, these disasters are having a 100% affect rate - meaning that whether directly involved or otherwise you will have been or are being affected on some level - you can't help but be. In this blog I want to talk about what that affect could be, and how to help yourself stay resourceful during these times - finding inner stability when there is so much outer instability - when the earth literally moves from under your feet.

How are people being directly affected?

If you are directly affected then of course the answer to that is obvious; you may have lost your home, loved ones, you may be living in third world conditions with no running water.

You will likely be experiencing feelings of trauma and PTSD symptoms (flashbacks, nightmares) and be worried, fearful or anxious about what has happened or what could happen next. The uncertainty of the situation is also likely to play a major role in how you feel - not being able to be certain where your kids are going to go to school, whether the building you work in might fall to the ground, whether Christchurch will ever be safe again, whether there will be another earthquake again tomorrow with more devastating affects....

When we have a major traumatic event - the research conducted by trauma and grief expert George Bonanno shows that statistically 90% of people will recover naturally after only two months. About 45% of those people were "resilient' - i.e. they never showed any PTSD symptoms and remained resilient during and after the event. The other 45% will suffer at first and after two months go into "recovery" mode where they overcome those bad feelings naturally and without the need for any intervention. The other 10% will be traumatised and show PTSD symptoms and are statistically shown to continue having these symptoms until they receive professional interventions which help them recover.

I think this is comforting news for people and it is helpful to share this with people you know who have been directly affected. It might be little comfort when you are woken up in the middle of the night with a surge of adrenaline from a nightmare you've just had - however, statistically you now know that you will recover from this naturally, once your brain knows that the threat is over. And for those who find themselves in that remaining 10% after a period of time can be comforted also - it is just your brain doing what it is designed to do, which is to keep you safe from threat - that is what the fear response was evolutionarily designed for. We know from research conducted into the effectiveness of trauma recovery interventions, like NLP, you will be OK again.

How to help yourself

In terms of dealing with the uncertainty of the situation, there are also things you can do to help yourself stay stable amongst all this. Remember, the fear, worry and anxiety you are experiencing is there for a good reason - to keep you safe. It isn't easy for your brain to be convinced you are safe when the threat to your survival is still around - i.e. aftershocks. However, as always, there are things you can do to help yourself and your system calm down and stay resourceful at these times:

1) Learn to breathe properly. When you go into a fear or a panic response you start breathing frantically and shallowly - and you end up with more oxygen in your system than your system needs or wants. This is why you get sweaty palms and feel dizzy. To counteract this chemical imbalance in your body you need more carbon dioxide in there. If you breathe out for longer than you breathe in, this corrects the imbalance: this is a physiological fact, nothing to do with me, just something mother nature designed! You can't breathe properly and panic at the same time - so choose one.

So, no matter what, pay attention to how you're breathing and make sure you are. And then practice 8-4 breathing:

Put your hand on your abdominal area and try and breathe in deeply here, as oppose to your chest (shallow breathing).

Breathe in for the count of 4.

Hold the breath for a couple of heartbeats (1, 2)

Breathe out for the count of 8.

2. Do whatever you can to relax your system. When you are relaxed, your body believes it is out of mortal danger, and can get on with those longer term health outcomes like a healthy digestion and immune system. You don't have to wait for the threat to be over in real life to teach your body to relax now - you being in a fear response isn't going to change the outcome as to whether there is another earthquake or not, and you are much more resourceful and able to think clearly when you are in a relaxed state of mind. You may not get there fully - i.e. completely relax, which is understandable - and you can still do your best. Anything that you know works for you that relaxes your system - do it! And remember, some of you are active relaxers - meaning you have to be doing and activity in order to relax yourself like sport or knitting or cleaning. Others need to be doing very little in order to relax, like lying down with a book or meditating. Know yourself and what works and do it.

3. Have a good strategy for dealing with the stuff you have to deal with. Get someone to help you prioritise - with all the stuff that has come up and potentially all the stuff that now needs doing, you can't do it all at once and if you try you will become overwhelmed and stressed. Prioritise - make a list, and then decide what needs doing first? And then next? And then next? Plan the next SMALL steps you are going to take in order to tackle the first priority - and see them in your mind as SMALL steps. This will help you deal with the future more effectively - there are many unanswered questions right now and the way you can help yourself deal with that is having a useful and prioritised plan of action.

Here, you can also brainstorm a useful strategy for dealing with aftershocks too: like breathing three times and if it is till going then then going for cover.

If not seeking help professionally, then I do recommend going through this with other people - you don't need to do it all alone. Brainstorm it together - put your infinite inner-resources together and see what you come up with.

How are people being indirectly affected?

New Zealand is a small population. Everyone knows someone that has been affected in Christchurch, even if you don't actually live in New Zealand right now. And even if you don't know anyone personally, when the atmosphere of a nation changes so dramatically so quickly, you may be experiencing some secondary affects - fear, uncertainty, feeling unstable or unsure, or maybe just emotionally flat or concerned.

How to help yourself

1. Give yourself a break. Release that however you feel - if you are feeling a lot of negative emotion or even just "flat" - that it is normal, you are being affected on a subtle level, not always consciously. So, give yourself a break if you are not feeling 100% right now (I have!) and recognise it for what it is and perhaps not directly yours. It will probably pass, and if you are concerned about your emotional health please seek help.

2. Help others realistically. Everyone wants to help, of course. And you need to make sure you don't burn out. There are lots of things you can be doing and getting involved in, and with that comes a certain amount of pressure that you "should" be doing more, or your "should" be giving more. It is a time when we are good national citizens and want to do our share of the helping and come together as a community - which is one of the awesome things that can come out of such adversity. AND you need to look after yourself too - you being burnt out or stressed isn't going to help anyone, including anyone in Christchurch or Japan.

Decide on how much extra curricular activity you can REALISTICALLY fit in, and how much financially you can afford, above and beyond what you need to do for yourself, and do that and only that. With everyone doing the same, we are all doing our best and working collectively. Your wellbeing counts too and you need to look after it.

3. Focus on appreciation and gratitude. There is nothing like a natural disaster like this where people have unexpectedly lost their lives to put things into perspective for the rest of us. A sad truth, but a truth nonetheless. It makes us realise that life is short, and can be taken away from us at any given moment. It is so precious. The things we can grumble about or be annoyed about on a daily basis cease to matter as much as realising that you are ALIVE - you are living and breathing and seeing and hearing and tasting and touching. Appreciate things about your day and your life - little things. Take a moment to write these things down before you go to bed;

Today I was grateful for:

My running water and plentiful food

My cat making me laugh with her unusual ways!

The sun shining in my back garden

It may be a prime time to asses your life, too. Are you living the way that you want to? If not, what do you want in your life? Don't waste another precious moment being anything less than appreciative and happy. If you are not happy, for whatever reason, make a plan to do something about it - there is so much you can do for yourself. It may be as simple as a small lifestyle change, like planning more time for yourself each week to read or be in the garden, or a bigger change like applying for that job you really want or writing that book you've been meaning to start...

Next steps

Whether you are directly affected or indirectly affected there are lots of resources available to you - whether it is being kinder to yourself, talking stuff through with a friend or finding professional help. There is a lot of free help being offered - it is there for a reason, so use it.

I am part of a charitable trust called The New Zealand Trauma Recovery Trust - we went to Samoa last year following the 2009 Tsunami. We are offering free NLP sessions through our coordinated list of NLP professional volunteers to those in need. Contact us through the website or call 0800 NLP RECOVERY (0800 657 732).

Please do get in touch if you have any questions and comments: or

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