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Kobe Images Unearth Old Anxieties : Psychology: Japan disaster and prediction of major local temblor send many Northridge quake survivors to crisis centers.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kobe, Kobe, Kobe--a mantra of dread--fills the sleepless nights and anguished days of Jackie Young.

Images on television, voices on the radio, a cacophony of doom thunders through her hillside home in Sherman Oaks and won’t go away.

Fixated on daily news broadcasts, she said that Tuesday’s earthquake in the Japanese seaport combined with new and strong predictions of a major local quake, has emotionally affected her in much the same way as the Northridge temblor last year. Young’s home suffered major structural damage then, shifting a couple of inches downhill and hurtling her into a year of fear.

“I don’t think there’s any getting over it,” she says. “And the worst thing about Kobe is, it brings into perspective how bad it really could be for us here.”

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Such watchful anxiety seems pandemic in Southern California this week. Calls to the region’s psychological crisis centers are up this week as much as 20%. And walk-in traffic at county mental health clinics is brisk.

“People are feeling a re-stimulation of the emotions of the Northridge quake, and perceptions of the fragility of their world,” says Susan Kaplan, director of Friends of the Family, a community mental health and family support center in Van Nuys. “They’ve had a double-whammy.”

Symptoms that dissipated months ago are reappearing, she said: sleeplessness, increased anxiety, irrational behavior, lack of focus, and, for children, the fear of separation from parents.

It’s a predictable response, a normal click on the wheel of human instinct. First, said Kaplan, people get a rush of adrenaline to deal with an emergency, then successively become exhausted, depressed, grief-stricken and angry before they recover.

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But the capacity to safely plateau at recovery is slower these days for many Southland residents because riots, wildfire, quake and floods have recently occurred so quickly in succession. Each takes its toll. The natural resiliency of especially fragile people--those who suffered a lot financially or personally in the Northridge quake, or the elderly, or the mentally infirm--may stretch only so far, then snap.

Kaplan recommended a reconnection to community as protection from angst.

“People need to rebuild their resilience through social clubs, schools and other local linkages,” she said. “Community-building is healing.”

Ironically, Kaplan has an in-house patient to examine: her husband.

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Alan Kaplan, planning director of Friends of the Family, said that the Kobe quake has “overwhelmed” him.

“I’m supposed to be working on major projects and I can’t get myself focused,” he said.

The inescapable vastness of Kobe’s sorrow has undercut Alan Kaplan’s usual optimism, his sanguine belief that a modern city can rebound quickly from catastrophe.

“I’m having backaches, headaches, fatigue--all very extraordinary for me,” he said. “I know intellectually that this should not happen, but the powerlessness of that large number of people takes the magnitude of Northridge up to the next level. It’s made me very, very afraid.”

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Fears are reawakening outside the San Fernando Valley, too. Cheri Adrian, chief of psychological assessment at UCLA Medical Center, said her clinic has been swamped with calls in the past week as fading quake memories are jolted back into focus.

“Psychologically, denial can be helpful up to a point,” she said. “It can help people get through their days without fear about things that they can’t do anything about.”

She added, though, that denial is harmful if it prevents people from taking measures to make their homes safe.

In fact, she noted, working around the home to improve safety or stockpile food and water can help relieve anxiety.

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“Preparation has a reassuring quality,” said Adrian. “Simply knowing that they’ve done all they can will make people feel better.”

Some Valley residents tried to do just that Saturday at an earthquake drill put on by the California Emergency Mobile Patrol at the Valley School in Van Nuys.

Many of the children were trapped in a simulated cave-in that reminded parents how Kobe residents have been pulled from rubble.

When Margaret Heckaby saw her 8-year-old son Ryan’s made-up bruised and bandaged face, she said she “got a pit in my stomach.”

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“Seeing Kobe recently made me realize I can have all the batteries I want in my house, but it doesn’t help.” Heckaby said. “I don’t like seeing my son bruised and cut and screaming,” if only acting during a drill.

Memory is the soothing vial in Dr. Linda Rhodes’ medicine cabinet.

The Kobe death toll, and the Northridge anniversary commemorations, have forced clients to relive problems that they had begun to resolve. Her remedy: “Remember the good things in your life instead of dwelling on fear,” she said.

Of course, not all recommendations are so complex. Rhodes has a coffee mug on her desk that reads: “Snap Out of It.”

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State Sen. Tom Hayden sees opportunity in anxiety’s face. The legislator spoke about Japan at candlelight vigils held in the San Fernando Valley on the one-year anniversary of the Northridge earthquake, and discovered denial dissolving among survivors.

“They’ve learned that the quake in Japan was not a faraway disaster of no concern because we share the same friction of tectonic plates,” Hayden said. “Japan is us, geologically speaking.”

Hayden introduced three seismic safety bills in the state Senate earlier this week, and said the Kobe earthquake will have one positive ramification locally: “I think my bills will get a more urgent and sympathetic hearing now.”


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