Test for when quake-traumatised can work again

NICOLE MATHEWSON
Last updated 05:00 01/09/2011

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Christchurch Earthquake 2011

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Researchers studying the effects of "earthquake brain" on quake-hit Cantabrians will be able to test when people are ready for work again after a disaster.

Canterbury University associate professor of psychology Deak Helton, who held a public lecture into the psychological impact of Canterbury's earthquakes last night, told The Press it was common for people to experience anxiety, depression and stress after a quake.

"A lot responses to earthquakes that may feel bad are just normal. We do know they tend to die down for most people." The main psychological effect of the quakes on Cantabrians was what was commonly known as "earthquake brain", where people experienced moments of "zoning out" while doing routine or simple tasks, he said.

"We're going to see a lot of these `zoning out' episodes ... where people are trying to refigure out their environment," he said.

"Humans like a little change ... but generally we're change-averse. Change is hard."

After the February quake in particular, that meant people had to make more effort to complete simple tasks, such as driving to the grocery store, because the way they normally got there had changed because of road or store closures.

Basic cognitive tests conducted before and after the September 4 quake showed the effect a traumatic event could have on the way people processed information, Helton said.

"You'd expect them to get better because they've had practice, but they didn't – they froze up."

Almost everyone affected by the quakes would experience "something like this earthquake brain", but it would decrease over time as life "becomes more orderly".

One positive thing to come out of the quakes for researchers was that they were able to develop "readiness measures" to test whether someone was ready to go back to work after a traumatic event.

"They're measures we can use in the future to see how capable people are after any kind of disaster."

The cognitive tests could be adapted for other uses, including measuring how fatigued a driver was, and smartphone applications could be created to allow people to test themselves before getting behind the wheel, he said.

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- The Press

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