Emotional “First Aid” 101
I have been running a short series of articles on the theme of Coincidence Engineering recently, but this month I want to buck the trend. I am of a mind to discuss a concept that I would like to call emotional “First Aid”.
I will continue the Coincidence Engineering series at a later date, but let’s look at some practical approaches that can be used everyday in our relationships and dealings with people.
First aid – usually refers to immediate emergency treatment given to an ill or injured person. What does this mean if we extend our understanding of illness or injury beyond the physical and look at forms of mental and emotional distress?
I remember a few years ago, my little girl (then probably about 8) started crying in the car on the way home from school.
“What’s the matter, darling?”, I asked.
“Mrs Smith got cross and shouted at me.”, she said.
I was a little bit stumped, as she had seemed fine when I picked her up for school, but I asked around a bit and came to realise that it wasn’t the telling off that upset her, it was the recollection of it that she was reliving at the time. So I asked a few more questions…
“So, have you got a picture in your head of her shouting out you now?”.
“Yes”, she mumbled through her crying.
“And is it like you can hear her shouting as well as see her?”
“And is it a big picture?”
“So what happens if you make it smaller?”
There was a slightly bewildered pause…
“It doesn’t upset me so much”
I laughed… “and what happens if you make it further away?”
At this point, she laughed… “it upsets me even less!” she said in surprise.
We went on a spent more time playing with the images and sounds in her head and the trouble with Mrs Smith was forgotten.
Now, I’m not suggesting that you use phrases and approaches like that with a distressed adult, but with a child anything can be made a game. However, there are some principles here that we can draw on to start to develop an approach of emotional first aid.
First, like the old joke, the person must really want to change. (How many psychotherapists does it take to change a lightbulb? Only one, but the lightbulb must *really* want to change.) Without this, no single effort to assist the individual to a state of emotional equilibrium is likely to succeed.
One way to find out if this is the case is to ask gentle questions… and these questions can then become the basis for your first “first aid” intervention…
“I can see that you are angry/distressed/hurting right now? How would you really rather be feeling?”.
Alternatively, you can just provide an alternative focus for attention…
“OK. Stop. Just concentrate on breathing slowly and listen to what I’m saying”
(I’m not giving you prescribed techniques here… what works with one person may well not work with another. The trick is to get to know the person and where they are at now, and where they would really rather be.)
Second, you can get someone to focus their attention on their distress in a different way, in a way that enables them to discover for themselves exactly what it is that is distressing them. In my daughter’s case, she wasn’t upset about Mrs Smith any more, that was over. She was upset about the pictures and sounds she was making in her head. Focusing on the different things she could do with those pictures and sounds gave her control over how she was feeling.
Sometimes, you can invite the individual to step out of their feeling. Literally to step out and leave it behind. The momentary confusion engendered by such a request can useful in redirecting attention away from the distress. Then ask them to look back at where they have left the distress and describe what they see in their imagination. You can go on and ask them what state they would much rather be in and get them to describe in their imagination just what *that* looks like and to show you where it is, before inviting them to step into that instead.
Another thing to remember in the context of emotional “first aid”, particularly with loved ones or those close to you, is just what it is you do with someone when they are upset. Do you hug them, or use certain words, a certain tone of voice? If so, do you usually only use that behaviour when they are upset? If so, you run the risk of “anchoring” the negative feelings to your behaviour, so that each time you hug them, or reassure them, you actually strengthen the negative feeling. I make a point of using behaviours to reassure that I also use regularly when those around me feel good. I give spontaneous hugs and assurance, use hugs when people do well and feel happy, so that when I come to use these behaviours when someone is distressed, the behaviours are anchored to *good* feelings.