Having been a trauma psychotherapist for nearly 30 years — now retired — I still think about how to help those of us who are suffering from traumatic incidents. Many of you, also, wish to be a healing presence for family and friends experiencing urgent states of highly charged emotional/physiological stress. Such stress can be caused by a wide-breadth of dramatically upsetting events such as serious motor vehicle accidents, violence, loss of a loved one, devastating medical diagnoses or even direct abuse at the hands of another.
When I say urgent states, I am thinking of someone whose emotional/physiological equilibrium is so deeply overturned that they are “beside themselves,” as the saying goes. You know what I mean if you’ve ever experienced one of those altered states where you are so disoriented you don’t feel like you’re in your own body. Your own natural resilience seems lost to you. It’s a frightening state to be in and having someone nearby who can help ease that suffering is invaluable.
Often though, when we’re trying to help, we feel inadequate and unprepared.
I stumbled across a terrific book a few years ago, “The Worst Is Over.” I recommend it. It provides the reader with needed preparation. The authors call it “verbal first aid.”
The authors provide medical evidence that the right words can be calming — actually changing the physiological reactions of the sufferer. The wrong words can change reactions, too, worsening them.
When I was training physicians on how to work with women who had been sexually assaulted, one caution I always underscored was that an innocent phrase could have devastating effects on the victim. A phrase such as: “Why did you even go into that dark parking lot alone?” — although meant empathetically — will frequently be interpreted by the victim as blaming and become an additional hurt, long-remembered.
On the other hand, something as simple, genuine and heartfelt as “I am so sorry this happened to you” can be soothing.
There is not enough space here to do justice to verbal first aid, but here are the bare bones.
Do these even with an unconscious person:
Generate rapport with the sufferer and speak with authority and empathy.
Give your name. “I am here to help. The worst is over. I will not leave you alone. Help is on its way.” Describe your comfort/first aid measures.
Get a contract: “Will you do as I ask you to?”
Give clear, positive, firm suggestions for pain relief and healing: “Because your body knows how to heal itself, you can right now begin to relax and let your body do its work. All your body’s resources are working at this very moment to help you recover and get through this.”
Nothing in this article is meant to be medical advice. Please consult your healthcare provider.
Some information is taken from:
“The Worst Is Over” by Judith Acosta. Jodere Group. 2002
Callie Wight is a California state-licensed registered nurse with a Master of Arts in psychology.