For the people of Canterbury and Christchurch, New Zealand, who have lived through major earthquakes and thousands of aftershocks, and ALL people experiencing stress, overwhelm, sleep problems and mental health problems after traumatic events.
New Zealand is my home and I have a long relationship with the Canterbury region. On February 22, 2011, an earthquake struck Christchurch and nearby towns in the Canterbury region. The quake caused 185 deaths and huge damage to homes and infrastructure. Thousands of aftershocks have followed. The number of people, especially younger people, seeking support with mental health problems has risen dramatically in the wake of the quake.
This article offers holistic advice on how you can take care of your or a loved one’s mental health after a traumatic event such as an earthquake.
Signs it’s time to seek help
Trauma affects everyone differently and for some people, the effects may be ongoing. It’s time to seek help if:
Consider all forms of stress that may have contributed
Trauma may be the main cause of a mental health problem that develops, or it may trigger a worsening of an existing or developing condition. You will probably know intuitively if the trauma of the earthquake (or another traumatic event) has been the main cause of your mental health problem, or if other physical and emotional stressors also contributed. Other stressors might include a relationship break up, a change or loss of job, studying and exams, changing schools, overworking, injury, surgery or illness, an abusive relationship or experience, bullying, loneliness, excessive alcohol consumption and lack of rest.
Once you have identified everything that has contributed to your overall stress, you will be able to make a clearer plan of action to take care of yourself.
Where multiple factors have contributed to a mental health problem, it will be important to address as many of these as possible. For example, you may benefit from reducing your working hours or after-school commitments, resting more, decreasing alcohol consumption, increasing activities that relax you in a nourishing way, taking a break from social media, or speaking to a counsellor about the experiences and trauma you have been through and your feelings around these.
Nutrients that combat stress
When we experience stress, vitamins and minerals are used up in greater amounts and more rapidly by the body. This can cause deficiencies to develop and is one way that excessive and long-term stress can make us ill. Below are nutrients depleted by stress and foods you can obtain them from.
Vitamin C rosehip tea, all leafy green veg, golden sweet potatoes, berries, stone fruits, citrus fruits, all brightly coloured vegetables and fruits
Magnesium almonds, cashews, almond and cashew butters, buckwheat, millet, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, quinoa, black beans, navy beans, spinach (please note, where signs of magnesium deficiency are present, supplementation is often necessary as well as increasing food sources)
Calcium sardines, Brazil nuts, almonds, tahini, dairy foods, broccoli
The B vitamins (B-complex) free range eggs, chicken, beef, lamb, venison, wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, brown rice, beans, peas, golden sweet potatoes, wholemeal pasta, spinach, kale, asparagus, broccoli
Note that B12 is vital for mental health and can only be obtained from animal foods. If you follow a vegan or vegetarian lifestyle, you will need to supplement this essential vitamin. Even many people who eat animal foods can also become deficient in B12 or have problems absorbing it. Talk to your natural health professional to learn more about signs of deficiency and steps you can take to obtain adequate B12 for your wellbeing.
Zinc beef, pumpkin seeds, cashew nuts, Brazil nuts, eggs, shrimp, lentils, quinoa, mushrooms, spinach, chickpeas
Sea salt and pink Himalayan salt are good sources of small amounts of many minerals and should be included in your diet every day for maximum benefit.
Research indicates higher doses of nutrients support trauma recovery and supplements are the easiest way to obtain higher doses. In addition to providing advice on diet and lifestyle additions, changes and tools to support your health, a qualified nutritionist can advise you on diagnostic testing to determine specific deficiencies you may be experiencing and quality supplements and dosages for your individual situation (taking into account your age and life stage nutrient requirements, your digestive health and absorption, whether you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, etc.)
Decrease health-depleting substances
Coffee, black tea, cola, energy drinks and alcoholic drinks are a form of stress on our body because they deplete vitamins and minerals needed by our nervous system for healthy structure and function, dehydrate us, and initiate the body’s stress response (on top of other stressors we may be experiencing).
Take a break from caffeinated drinks and alcohol for one month and notice how you feel. Switch coffee and black tea for herbal teas (e.g., peppermint, ginger), switch colas and energy drinks for water with freshly squeezed lemon juice, green juices and herbal teas, and switch alcohol for soda or tonic water with lime.
Note that the oral contraceptive pill depletes many vitamins and minerals. If you are taking the OCP and experiencing mental health problems, seeing a nutritionist would be a worthy investment in your long-term health. Excess white sugar and flour consumption also depletes many minerals and it would be wise to reduce white flour foods and sweet treats (including fizzy drinks) to once a week or fortnight (at most) if you are experiencing a mental health problem.
Feed your brain for mental and emotional health
Your brain is partly made of DHA, a type of fat found in omega 3, which is a healthy fat found in oily fish. Nourishing the nervous system by eating more oily fish supports nervous system structure and function and mental health. Sardines, mackerel, salmon (canned is fine if you are on a budget), grass-fed beef, butter, wild venison, flaxseed oil and free range eggs are some of the best sources of omega 3. Tuna is not a good choice of fish (tasty as it might be) – it contains low levels of omega 3 and high levels of mercury, a toxic heavy metal that is difficult for the body to excrete and which tends to be stored in body tissues, leading to adverse health effects
Omega 3 is also anti-inflammatory. Inflammation can take hold as part of the stress response when stress is constant or extreme, and has been implicated in depression and many other health conditions. Eating omega-3-rich foods helps combat inflammation, further supporting our mental health and overall health.
Crucial to supporting your omega 3 levels and metabolism is to REDUCE your consumption of omega 6, as the ratio between these two fats is important. This means not cooking with high-omega-6 oils such as sunflower, canola, rapeseed, peanut, rice bran and soy oils. Choose olive oil, coconut oil or butter for cooking with instead. Furthermore, avoid eating processed fats such as margarine and packaged foods containing hydrogenated fats/oils to support your body’s omega 3 levels.
Feeling totally exhausted and hopeless?
If you are feeling physically and mentally exhausted, depressed, enraged, overwhelmed, unable to cope, craving salt, experiencing worsened PMS, having recurrent illnesses and infections, struggling to fall asleep and struggling to stay asleep, your endocrine and nervous systems likely need support. This can occur when the amount of stress a person has experienced exceeds their body’s ability to cope with it. If you are experiencing any combination of the above symptoms, I recommend you schedule an appointment with a nutritionist.
Nutrition is one tool
I believe nutrition can most effectively support mental wellness when combined with therapy/counselling and the presence of supportive, caring relationships in your life.
If you are in Christchurch, New Zealand, Petersgate Counselling Centre offers some subsidies on counselling: www.petersgate.org.nz
Supportive relationships nourish our emotional and overall wellbeing. Stay close to people who add to your life and make time to spend time together in real life, not just on facebook or by text. In addition, consider reducing your contact with any toxic or draining people where possible.
A very important supportive relationship is the one we have with ourselves. Two tools for nourishing yourself:
More support and resources
-Watch psychologist Dr Rob Gordon's video where he offers six thoughtful tips for recovery after a disaster.
-Call The Canterbury Support Line on 0800 777 846, to speak to someone who will help you work out what kind of support you need.
-Check out the online SPARX program designed for young people feeling anxious, distressed or depressed.
-Contact the friendly team at MHAPS on Colombo Street, who offer individual and group support for different types of mental health problems.