Do the Psychological Effects of Ongoing Adversity in a Natural Context Accumulate or Lessen over Time? The Case of the Canterbury Earthquakes
Degree GrantorUniversity of Canterbury
Degree NameMaster of Arts
The current study examined the psychological effects of recurring earthquake aftershocks in the city of Christchurch, New Zealand, which began in September 2010. Although it has been identified that exposure to ongoing adverse events such as continuing terrorist attacks generally leads to the development of increasing symptomology over time, differences in perceived controllability and blame between man-made and natural adverse events may contribute to differences in symptom trajectories. Residents of two Christchurch suburbs differentially affected by the earthquakes (N = 128) were assessed on measures of acute stress disorder, generalised anxiety, and depression, at two time points approximately 4-5 months apart, in order to determine whether symptoms intensified or declined over time in the face of ongoing aftershocks. At time 1, clinically significant levels of acute stress were identified in both suburbs, whereas clinical elevations in depression and anxiety were only evident in the most affected suburb. By time 2, both suburbs had fallen below the clinical range on all three symptom types, identifying a pattern of habituation to the aftershocks. Acute stress symptoms at time 2 were the most highly associated with the aftershocks, compared to symptoms of generalised anxiety and depression which were identified by participant reports to be more likely associated with other earthquake-related factors, such as insurance troubles and less frequent socialisation. The finding that exposure to ongoing earthquake aftershocks leads to a decline in symptoms over time may have important implications for the assessment of traumatic stress-related disorders, and provision of services following natural, as compared to man-made, adverse events.