Weather the storm: Use coping tools to help a loved one stay calm in a crisis
It is said that adversity introduces us to ourselves - it also acquaints us with our support system. When a loved one encounters a crisis, they need calm and collected people in their corner. It's a distressing and confusing experience for all involved, but there are some things that we can do to provide immediate support.
1 Don't tell someone to calm down
Resist the urge to tell a person in distress to relax or calm down - it generally has the reverse effect. This statement sounds like an order, which puts additional pressure on a person in a crisis situation. At worst, they will become more distressed; at best, they will close down, rather than calm down.
2 Become their anchor
Instead of telling a person to calm down, assume a calming presence. Adapt the volume and tone of your voice and try to strike a soothing and measured cadence. It's also important to stay in the moment and focus on your breath. This will encourage the distressed person to resonate with your composure, and sync with your calmer state of being.
3 Say less, listen more
Remember that the person in distress is in a form of survival mode. They aren't seeking advice and they certainly don't want to hear 'I told you so'. This isn't a time for judgement or criticism. Ask enough questions to keep the person talking but don't ask unnecessarily probing questions. There's plenty of time to find out what exactly happened. For now, you want to ascertain how exactly you can help.
4 Establish a routine
There is no true north in a crisis situation, during which a person will generally take leave from established structures like work and extracurricular activities. With this in mind, it's important to create temporary forms of structure to give the person even an illusory sense of routine. It could be as simple as turning on the radio and sitting down to breakfast at the same time each morning, or going for a walk in the afternoon. As the saying goes, control the controllables.
5 Make decisions on their behalf
Remember that a person in shock is not thinking rationally and it is extremely likely that they will become scatty and forgetful. Do the spot-checks and check-lists on their behalf. Buy the milk, fill the car with petrol, charge their mobile phone.
6 Provide grounding techniques
A distressed person can experience palpitations, numbness or even a dissociative out-of-body sensation. Professional help should be sought in these instances, however, there are some grounding techniques that can work as a first line of defence. Diaphragmatic breathing is a great ally. Encourage them to take long and slow breaths in through the nose, guiding the breath towards the lower belly. You could also try the 5-4-3-2-1 technique, which utilises the five senses and helps bring a person back into the here and now.
5 - Look. Look around and notice five things.
4 - Feel. Name four things you can feel. I feel the socks on my feet, I feel the chair I'm sitting on.
3 - Listen. Listen out for three separate sounds and name them.
2 - Smell. Notice two things that you smell.
1 - Taste. Notice one thing that you can taste. If you can't taste anything, think of your favourite taste.
7 Encourage them to do body work
As Bessel A. van der Kolk explains in The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, emotional trauma leaves a physiological imprint on the body, so the sooner the distressed person does some body work - massage, reflexology, yoga - the better. It's also important to ask a traumatised person how they are feeling physically - in most cases, it will help them open up about how they're feeling mentally too.
8 This too shall pass
What doesn't kill us doesn't always make us stronger - however, there is evidence to suggest that some people experience what is known as 'post-traumatic growth' in the aftermath of adversity. Once the dust has settled, let the person know that trauma can lead to positive psychological change and acknowledge the progress they have already made.
9 Prepare them for the emotional roller coaster
Once the person had got over the initial shock, it is important to remind them that they will experience various emotions. We all know the stages of grief - denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. However, it's important to remember that adversity can throw up all sorts of feelings - guilt, shame, helplessness. There's no map for the emotional terrain that a person will encounter as they heal, so the best thing you can do is prepare them for the twists and turns ahead.
10 Know when it's above your station
A support system of friends and family is crucial but some crises require professional help. People often make the mistake of waiting for the 'right moment' to suggest talk therapy. It's better to seize the momentum of the situation and say it sooner rather than later.
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