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Emotional First Aid

This is such a complex world we live in now, isn’t it? So much going on, so little time to rest and recover. Seems as if we spend most of our time reacting—and so much of the news is bad. Maybe it’s not so tough when the events that arrive on our doorstep are little ones, or they don’t impact us directly and personally. If the events are small enough, usually we can keep it together, resist the stories our mind starts telling us, and move on. If action is needed, we can stop, take time to think, and use our homo sapiens forebrain to come up with reasonably wise decisions. But what happens when sudden, really bad news arrives?

What happens when we hear a dear friend or family member has inoperable cancer? That another friend’s son or daughter has committed suicide? That a parent has had a stroke or heart attack and isn’t expect to make it? Or even—God forbid—that our own spouse or sibling or child has been in a serious car accident? So much stuff can come at us out of the blue. Maybe your spouse decides they want a divorce. Your fiancé calls off the wedding and leaves town. Or someone steals your credit card and your identity and starts draining your bank account. Or the boss calls you in and tells you you’re being laid off. Or…

And so often in a sudden-crisis situation, vital decisions have to be made very quickly. But bad news, really bad news, puts us in shock. And shock—physical or emotional shock— disengages our normal decision-making apparatus in the cerebral cortex. Instead, our hindbrain takes over, that old, old reptilian brain that can only come up with the “three Fs”: fight, flight, freeze. Meanwhile the mid-brain, the limbic system that governs our emotional responses, is on overdrive, generating horror stories or telling us how completely helpless we are. So we’ll tend either to make instant, emotionally driven, unwise decisions, or freeze and be unable to come up with any decisions at all. Not good.

I had a situation like that happen just a few weeks ago. In one five-hour period, four pieces of sad and frightening news arrived in my inbox and on my phone: four life-threatening, disastrous scenarios unfolding for four people dear to me. I pride myself on having done a lot of work practicing my response to crisis. I’ve learned, in most circumstances, to ignore the horror movies of incoming doom my inner storyteller shows me, feel the feeling and let it go, and make decisions in the clear space that shows up after that. But this came too hard and fast for me to keep up. Two dear friends who were looking death in the face? Plus two more whose almost-born children were in grave danger? And I couldn’t do one thing about it. I felt like I’d been kicked—four times—in the gut. My heart rate speeded up, my breathing got shallow. I felt angry, scared, victimized, helpless—as if I were the person all this was happening to. If you had put me behind the wheel of a car in that moment, I would have been completely unable to navigate or drive safely. As for making important—or even unimportant—decisions, that was utterly beyond me. It felt like everything had ground to a halt; my cerebral cortex was simply not functioning.

I was fortunate two ways. First, I had no immediate crisis-related decisions to make or actions to take. It wasn’t my job to drive a car to the hospital, make plane reservations and get to an airport, talk to relatives, explain the unthinkable to children, make immediate medical or legal or financial decisions, file a police report, or any of the hundreds of things people are asked to do in the immediate wake of a personal disaster. And second, my dear wife Beth was there to remind me about emotional first aid: the simple things a person can do to clamber back out of the hindbrain when they’ve been hammered by bad news.

It helped. Did it make me feel great? Of course not. But I was able to continue with my day and make the decisions that were mine to make. I didn’t freeze, run, or verbally attack the next person I saw. So I thought those same first-aid responses might help you, too. Here are some simple things you can do that will help right away.

Emotional First Aid Tools:

Note: the list below is available in shorter, less chatty form in the post just before this one, the Emotional First Aid Checklist. When you’ve read up on the rationale and the details, posting a copy of that shorter list can serve to prompt you during your preparation-practice phase (see Priority A below).

Priority One is physical. The first priority is to get our body functioning a bit closer to normal. Until that happens, we can’t think clearly, deal with our emotions, or act safely. Shock sends the body into overdrive or shutdown or both. Here’s some immediate help:

1. Breathe. Deliberately breathe slowly and deeply. Breathe all the way out before breathing back in. Count five long, slow breaths before going on. Your brain needs oxygen!

2. Add the Relaxation Response. You can do this mini-exercise anywhere, any time. Breathe out forcefully, blowing the air out like a deep sigh. At the same time, let your shoulders drop down and your chest cave in. This is important because it sends a physical command to your nervous system that it’s okay to relax.

3. Next, drink. Have at least a few sips of water if at all possible. Then a few more. And a few more. Shock dehydrates, and then your brain cells don’t get the nourishment they need in order to be on the ball. So, drink. Water—not coffee, tea, alcohol, chocolate or sodas, all of which will actually rob your body of the water it desperately needs.

All this takes about three minutes total. These are the most vital re-starts; from there, add in what you can. The more the better!

Priority Two involves the emotional responses. As you come out of the first physical shock, it’s very likely your internal storyteller will try to start up and some kind of emotional response will come flooding in: panic, or its cover-up anger, are the most common ones. The key here is NOT to listen to the story right now. Maybe what it’s saying has some validity, maybe not, but you aren’t yet in a position to act on it. Instead, try this:

1. Spray Rescue Remedy under the tongue. This is a Bach flower essence mixture that has an immediate calming effect on the emotional brain. The “I can’t deal with this” of shock shifts to “Okay, now I can begin to get a handle on this.” Rescue Remedy comes in very small containers of drops or spray; I have three or four of them around my house and one in my purse. One caveat: it does have an alcohol base, in case that’s a no-no for you.

2. Deal with panic via the Mind Cuddle visualization. Use the Imagine your panicked mind is a small, terrified animal. Imagine holding it in your hands and stroking it gently, saying, “I’m here. I’m here with you.” Don’t fight the fears, don’t argue with them, but don’t listen to them either. Just keep stroking that little scared puppy or kitten or other baby animal. As you sense it calming down under your stroking hand, your body and emotions will follow suit.

3. Acknowledge and name the emotion(s). Use this formula: “Right now I’m feeling (scared, angry, stunned, whatever).”

4. Make a promise. Tell that feeling: “As soon as I can in the next two days, I’ll take the time to feel you fully.”

5. Put the feelings in a safe Comfortable Container. Ideally, this will be a container you’ve “constructed” in your imagination well ahead of time and are used to working with. Imagine wrapping the feelings in a soft blanket, putting them in that welcoming container and closing the lid. Remind them you’ll be taking the back out in no more than 48 hours.

6. Keep your promise! This is vital. If you don’t , the container will dump those feelings into permanent storage in your body’s cells. You so do not want that! Meanwhile, though, you will have the space to deal with what you need to do.

Priority Three is mental: getting the executive brain back on line. Even if you’re not directly involved in responding to the crisis, you still need to be able to function and make decisions.

1. Orient yourself in space. There’s a sweet little exercise I learned as a classroom teacher that now helps my clients come fully back into their bodies when intense emotional experiences knock them for a loop. If you’re driving, don’t do this. (Actually, if you’re in shock, don’t drive!) But if you’re inside a building, do this:

  • Look at the wall straight ahead of you.Now close your eyes for a couple of seconds.Re-open them, look again and see some detail you didn’t see before: a speck on the wall, a color you didn’t notice, anything.

  • Now look to your left and do the same things:look, close your eyes, then look again and find a new detail.

  • Come back to center, then look right and repeat.

  • Come back to center, then look behind you and repeat.

  • Back to center, then look up at the ceiling.

  • Back to center one more time.Now close your eyes one more time, and feel yourself here, in your body. As you open your eyes, say (out loud works best):”I am here, now.”

2. Refuel. Feed your brain. Literally. Shock uses up most of our available calories. If it’s been more than two hours since you last ate, take on board something your body can absorb pretty quickly. For this, liquids or semi-liquids work best and sit lightly in your stomach. A cup of sweetened yogurt, a prepackaged pudding or custard, or my favorite: a sweetened protein shake, with milk or a milk substitute. If you’re feeling “I couldn’t possibly eat anything right now,” you may well be able to drink something. The sugar will give your brain an immediate boost, the protein will give you some staying power. You might even want to invest in a can of Boost or other nutrition-rich drink, stored where you can quickly reach it.

3. Breathe again. Do the long, slow breaths a couple more times, then add in the Relaxation Response.

4. Ask two questions. First, ask yourself, “Is action required right now?” Then, if the answer is “Yes,” ask, “What’s my first step?” By this time, your decision-making apparatus should be back on line, and in the clear space your first aid has created, the answers will come. Then you can swing into action with the knowledge that you’ll be a whole lot safer, a whole lot wiser and more helpful, and a whole, whole lot more effective.

P.S. Remember to keep that promise to your emotional self! Sometime in the following 48 hours, go to that safe-deposit box and open it up. Let the feelings come, If you need more help in feeling a feeling fully and healthily, you might want to check out my CD Making Friends With Feelings.

PRIORITY A: PREPARATION AND PRACTICE. This precedes Priority One, because it’s what makes all the rest available when you need it. Like any first aid, in the moment when we most need these tools we’re unlikely to have a handy manual around to consult, or the time and brainpower to consult it. So I urge you to practice these tools when you don’t need them desperately, until they are “first nature” to you. Here are some ways to weave these into your day:

Post reminders of the Top Three. On your laptop cover. On the bathroom mirror. On the refrigerator. On the front or back door. On your car’s dashboard. Try posting: 1. Breathe. 2. Relax Response. 3. Water. Then actually DO those three steps. (Yes, the water too.) Intellectual knowledge isn’t enough, is it? Our bodies need the practice so that when our mind goes blank, we instinctively go to our habits: the responses we’ve practiced so many, many times. And, great news! Crisis or not, your body benefits every single time you do this. These three tools help rescue our bodies from the everyday stresses of just plain living , too.

Carry water. In dry Colorado, bringing a bottle of water everywhere we go is a given. But even if you live somewhere well-supplied with water vapor, you might want to have a bottle of water in the fridge and one in the car.

Add Rescue Remedy. I suggest at least one for home, one for purse, pocket or car. Then try it out when you feel frazzled, helpless, at a loss.

Stock up on brain fuel. Buy some Ensure or Boost, or a jar of protein powder and some almond or soy milk (something that won’t sour if stored); add a four-pack of your favorite flavor of yogurt or pudding. Put them in a readily accessible place in the refrigerator or on the counter. On the fridge, and on the wall above where you put your purse, or in the tray where you keep your car keys, post a note: Protein Powder? (or Yogurt?) so in an emergency you’ll take the time to feed that brain. Then, even in a non-emergency, check your body before going out the door. Are you close to running on empty? One of these small, quick refills can help you function at your best—and not so incidentally, keep you from overeating at your next meal.

Practice, practice, practice the three inner tools. When your mind starts telling panicky stories, do the Mind Cuddle. When your emotions start spiraling out of control and this just isn’t the time or place to work with them, use the Comfortable Container, then bring them out and feel them healthily within the “48-hour hold” limit. And when you’re feeling foggy, woozy or distracted, or have to change gears quickly, practice the Orientation Exercise. Get very, very familiar with them.

When you need them most, your forebrain will probably not be there to access them intellectually, so they need to become habitual, instinctive responses to stress. Then when you really, really need them, your body will follow through on these well-practiced patterns. And after all, if you required, let’s say, an IV, a breathing re-start or a tourniquet, would you rather have those administered by someone who had done it hundreds of times or someone who’d only read about how it’s done?

This isn’t a very joyful topic, I know. I do hope you won’t need these tools very often. My experience, though, says you’ll benefit from having them in your active repertoire—and from the practice that put them there!

Again, the Checklist post immediately before this one has an abbreviated version of the Emotional First Aid list. Feel free to copy and print it for quick reference. May these tools serve you well when you most need them!

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