Why Didn’t I Panic During the Earthquake?

East coast earthquakesSo, you’re probably tired of hearing the word “earthquake” by now.

Well, me too.  But this is an anxiety blog, and Tuesday’s earthquake undoubtedly shook our collective nerves, so bypassing the topic completely would be a seismic error. (Oh, and please don’t find fault in my shaky puns.)

Ahem.  Okay, enough of that.

So, where were you when it happened?  Were you anxious?  I personally know two people who were (at least temporarily) convinced that the earthquake was an internal medical condition.  One woman I know thought she was having a stroke (she was doing paperwork on her desk at the time and everything looked all wobbly and distorted), and a friend from college with a history of vertigo thought she was getting a severe dizzy spell.

I can’t imagine how many people have similar stories about how the earthquake, an external condition, tricked their body into believing that something was fouling up on the inside.  (Sounds a bit like the way some panic attacks operate, no?)

Although I’d had three panic attacks in the days leading up to the earthquake, I didn’t panic when the quake hit.  My anxiety manifested itself as excitement (which, physiologically speaking, is practically identical to anxiety).  After all, it was my first earthquake and I was…well, intrigued.


Here’s how it all went down: I made the decision to do a meditation exercise at about 1:30 pm.  I laid down on my living room floor, laptop at my side, and began to play the audio file with the induction and guided visualization.  I got super relaxed, closed my eyes, and my limbs felt heavy.  My breathing was regular, my muscles were loose, and I was wonderfully attentive to the world around me.

Fully in the present moment, I heard an orchestra of birds, cicadas, and lawnmowers entering through a few open windows. I felt my heels touching the carpet beneath me.  I smelled the burnt leftovers of a minor banana-bread-overflowing-the-loaf-pan incident in my oven the day prior.

There I was, laying down and focusing on the present moment at 1:51 pm…and focusing on the truck going by outside: wait, I feel a truck rumbling but I don’t hear a truck.  Weird.  Okay, time to let go of that thought and bring my focus back to the breath.  But wait — that rumble is lasting for too long.  Oh!  It’s probably just the wind.  Wait a second — it’s never just the wind; I learned that from all the Alvin Schwartz Scary Stories books I read in third grade.  Also, my curtains are barely blowing but the wall is shaking as if there’s a huge windstorm outside.  What the…

And that’s when I jumped up and audibly yelled (while all alone, no less) “ZOMG EARTHQUAKE!”

I watched the leaves of my houseplants dance around and heard the bells in my bird’s cage ringing from the next room.  It was too novel to elicit panic.  As you grow older — even though I’m only in my late twenties — the number of “firsts” you experience in any given year tends to shrink as your resume of life experiences grows.  But this was definitely a first for me — and therefore, it was a bit exciting.

(And it’s even more exciting in retrospect now that I realize there were very few injuries or damage done to property. If there’s such a thing as a best-case-scenario earthquake, this would be it.)

While I was listening to bird toys jingling, my friend Margaret was at work in a Manhattan office building.  She and her co-workers ran down 34 flights of stairs at 1:51 pm.  A Facebook friend from college said she thought her downstairs neighbor was renovating and got really annoyed that her couch was shaking as a result.  And my fiance Jason, who works in a small office outside of Philly with a bunch of geologists, gave and received lots of high fives after the shaking stopped.

What were you doing at 1:51 pm?  Were you anxious?  Did you panic?  Did you feel prepared?

Creative Commons License photo credit: °Florian

Why Didn’t I Panic During the Earthquake?

Summer Beretsky

Summer Beretsky enjoys writing about her experiences with anxiety, panic, and Paxil. She had her first panic attack as an undergrad at Lycoming College and plenty more while she worked toward her M.A. in Communication from the University of Delaware. She contributes to the World of Psychology blog here on PsychCentral and has written for the Los Angeles Times. You can follow her on Twitter @summerberetsky.

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APA Reference
Beretsky, S. (2011). Why Didn’t I Panic During the Earthquake?. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 21, 2018, from


Last updated: 26 Aug 2011
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 26 Aug 2011
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