For the people of Canterbury and Christchurch, New Zealand, who have lived through major earthquakes and thousands of aftershocks, and ALL people experiencing stress, sleep problems and mental health problems after traumatic events.
New Zealand is my home and I grew up in Canterbury. On February 22, 2011, an earthquake struck Christchurch and nearby towns in the Canterbury region, causing 185 deaths and huge damage to homes and infrastructure. Thousands of aftershocks followed. The number of people seeking support with mental health problems, particularly anxiety and PTSD, 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 recent 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 can begin making a plan of action to care for yourself.
Where multiple factors have contributed to your mental health changes, 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, taking a break from social media, beginning a meditation or yoga practice, or speaking to a counsellor about the experiences you have been through.
Nutrients that combat stress
When we experience stress, vitamins and minerals are used up in greater amounts and more rapidly by the body as part of the neurological and hormonal stress response (fight or flight). 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, magnesium supplementation is often necessary where mental health and sleep problems are occurring)
Calcium tinned salmon and sardines with soft bones, Brazil nuts, almonds, dairy foods
Zinc beef, pumpkin seeds, Brazil nuts, eggs, shrimp, lentils, quinoa, mushrooms
The B vitamins (B-complex) free range eggs, chicken, beef, lamb, venison, wild salmon, sardines, mackerel, beans, peas, golden sweet potatoes, spinach, kale, asparagus, broccoli
Vitamin 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. Even people who eat animal foods can become deficient in B12 or have problems absorbing it. See a nutritionist to learn more about signs of B12 deficiency and to obtain a quality supplement. Be aware that antacid drugs such as Losec and Omeprazole, SSRIs and the contraceptive pill all reduce body stores of B vitamins and their use can lead to deficiencies.
Sea salt and pink Himalayan salt are good sources of small amounts of many minerals and should be used 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 changes to support your health, a qualified nutritionist can refer you for diagnostic testing to determine specific deficiencies you may be experiencing and supply you with quality supplements and dosages for your individual situation (taking into account your age, your digestive health, whether you are pregnant or planning to become pregnant, etc.).
Limit your consumption of health-depleting substances
Coffee, black tea, cola, energy drinks and alcoholic drinks are a form of stress on your body because they deplete B vitamins and minerals like magnesium that are needed by your nervous system for healthy structure and function. caffeinated and alcoholic drinks also dehydrate you and initiate the body’s stress/fight-or-flight response (on top of other stress you may be experiencing).
Take a break from caffeinated drinks and alcohol for one to two months and notice how you feel. Switch coffee and black tea for herbal teas (e.g., peppermint, ginger, hibiscus, chamomile), switch colas and energy drinks for water with freshly squeezed lemon juice and switch alcohol for soda or tonic water with lime.
The oral contraceptive pill (OCP) and SSRIs (antidepressants) deplete many vitamins and minerals. If you're taking the OCP or an antidepressant and experiencing ongoing or worsening mental health problems, seeing a nutritionist would be a worthy investment in your long-term health.
Feed your brain for mental and emotional health
Your brain is partly made of DHA, a type of 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 (tinned 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.
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 your mental health and overall health.
To support your body's omega 3 levels and your mental health, it's important to also reduce your consumption of inflammatory omega 6 fats. This means choosing not to cook with high-omega-6 oils such as sunflower, canola, rapeseed, peanut, rice bran and soy oils. Choose olive oil or coconut oil for cooking instead. Furthermore, avoid processed fats such as margarine, which often contain high-omega-6 oils. Butter is always best! (And our grandparents knew this!)
Feeling totally exhausted and overwhelmed?
If you're feeling physically and mentally exhausted, depressed, enraged, unable to cope, experiencing worsened PMS, having recurrent 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 of the above symptoms, I recommend you make an appointment to see a nutritionist.
Nutrition is one tool
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 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 you have with yourself. Book activities into your week that lift you up. These could be sports, yoga, walks in nature, listening to or playing music, time with your pets, meals with friends and family, art, crafts, reading, baths, dancing, bike rides, meditation, watching the sunset…..you decide.
-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.