Have you ever been in a situation with a friend, family member or co-worker when s/he becomes upset and you don’t know what to do? You want to help but aren’t sure what is the right thing to say. While most of us know something about medical first aid, many don’t know how to respond to everyday emotional upsets. Even worse, many of the commonly held notions like trying to “cheer” someone up completely misunderstand what is needed. Today we’re talking about the basics of “emotional first aid” and offering some helpful tips you can use the next time you find yourself in this situation.

What happens when folks become distraught?

When we become emotionally upset, the primitive part of our brain called the amygdale hi-jacks the reasonable part of our brain. Our perspective and a sense of safety are overturned and a sense of panic takes over.  We can’t think logically.  We catastrophize and can only imagine worst case outcomes. We become angry, tearful, fearful and hopeless.

The Goal of Emotional First Aid

With medical first aid, what needs to be done is obvious. For example, if someone is bleeding you stop it. With emotional first aid, the emotional fireworks fired off by a person’s upset can be distracting and confusing. Nonetheless the overall goal is to assist the person to slow things down, reduce the sense of panic or despair and recover a reasonable perspective.

Common Mistakes

When we encounter someone who is upset, we ourselves can become distraught.  Often we react out of our needs rather than being able to pay attention to the needs of the person who is in emotional pain.  As a result, we:

  • Become Impatient.  Being with someone who is upset is difficult and we want it to stop as soon as possible.
  • Don’t listen to what is actually being said or asked for.
  • Interrupt and cut the person off from saying or doing what they need to say or do.
  • Feel like we have to do something like cheer the person up, give advice or solve his/her problem.

Tips for restoring a sense of calm and reason

The first thing to decide when you encounter an upset person is: Can I handle it ? That is can I engage the person and not get caught up in my own emotional stuff. Can I stay focused on them ?

If I decide I can and want to help, the two most important things a person can do for one who is emotionally upset is to help themslow his/her breathing down and to be empathic. Physically when this happens, our breathing becomes more rapid and shallow, therefore suggesting that the person take a couple of  slow deep breaths will help to restore them to  more normal breathing.

Empathy  requires:

  • Listen patiently. Keep focused on the person and what they are saying. Put your own reactions and feelings aside.
  • Express understanding.  A simple nod or look is all it takes to stay connected.
  • Accept what is being said or done without criticism or judgment. You don’t have to agree or disagree, just be with them.
  • Give Reassurance of your support.

Remember, in highly charged emotional situations, less is more. As much as you can: It is OK to be silent. You don’t have to be brilliant or fix anything. Your being there with a caring and non- anxious presence and attention is a powerful and healing gift.