I experienced my first earthquake this summer. I was away from my family for a weekend in Palm Springs with some dear cousins and friends. We were sitting around a table outdoors finishing dinner when I started to feel nauseated and wondered if I was ill. Then I noticed a peculiar sound, the sound of waves. In the pool. I felt like I was on an amusement park ride or had had too much wine. Something wasn’t right. A moment later someone asked, “Is this an earthquake?” The Californians in the group said, “Yes.” We sat at the table, surrounded by high palm trees in the dusk, while we watched the waves in the pool and felt the disconcerting, intense sensation of rocking back and forth. After what seemed like an eternity, it stopped. Then, in a moment, it started again. “Aftershock,” said the experienced Californians. It finally stopped.
Afterwards, we stayed at the table to discuss the event. Did we do the right thing? What should we do in the future? The Californians educated us and we learned to stay put and/or get under something if there is something to get under. In hindsight, we could have gotten under the table in case one of those tall palm trees crashed down. We were told that we should not have walked or run inside but balance is so off during earthquakes that people can injure themselves if they try to walk or run. The next morning, most of us shared that we had dreams about the earthquake.
I thought about the earthquake throughout the weekend. I knew I could have any number of thoughts and feelings about it. I could catastrophize- be afraid and fear further earthquakes and fear the destruction that could occur from them. This could generalize to a fear of other natural disasters. My worries could then generalize to a fear of unnatural disasters such as terrorism. I had lived in Manhattan for 7 years post-9/11 and am acutely attuned to low-flying planes. My mind came up with the thought, “I should never ever leave my family again because I could be killed and leave my kids motherless.” I could walk around nearly paralyzed by anxiety, my fight or flight system kicking into high gear, constantly anticipating terrible events. My heart could race, I could start to sweat, feel dizzy or nauseated, have difficulty breathing, and worry constantly about impending doom. My worries could consume me and take me away from being present with my family, my clients, and my ability to experience my life fully. This is what would happen if I chose to stick with catastrophic thinking as a reaction to the earthquake.
Instead, I chose a different path. Because of my work as a cognitive behavior therapist, I know that there are many reactions to a stressful event. CBT teaches me to choose the most helpful interpretation of a situation. In this case, I’m safe! I am now educated about earthquakes. I know what to do next time. That’s empowering. From my Acceptance and Commitment Therapy training, I know that I can ignore these catastrophic thoughts. I can choose to observe my thoughts as a bad news radio that is on inside my brain. I can choose to simply observe my worried thoughts and then turn my attention to other things. Mindfulness teaches me to notice and be curious about my thoughts and feelings but not to act on them. I can turn my attention to what I can control in my life and what I value. Instead of paying attention to the worried thoughts starting to bubble up on my mind, I chose to focus the rest of my weekend on enjoying the people I was with whom are so dear to me.
P.S. For more information on Cognitive Behavior Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, and Mindfulness-Based Therapies, please visit www.cbtdenver.com