Disclaimer: As indicated in Part 1 of this series, I am a NOT a professional in this field. My intent with these postings is strictly to show that we need to include Psychological First Aid in our knowledge base just as we do with basic (medical) first aid. I am only reporting what I’ve learned.
It’s not just overtly traumatic events that might trigger the need for Psychological First Aid. Stress can also generate the need for us to know what to do to help someone work through what is chaos to them.
Every life has setbacks and difficulties and the same skills that would help in a disaster situation will be useful in a life suffering from the death of a loved one or loss of a job. It doesn’t matter how BAD the situation is in everyone else’s mind, it’s how crippling it is in the mind of the sufferer. A child may be completely thrown by a bad grade or hurtful friends where an adult looks on, perplexed, wondering “what’s the big deal.” The truth is, in the mind of that child, It Is a Big Deal. The same is true for adults whose stressful lives have just tipped over into the intolerable.
I wish I kept track of where I found this very useful description of how and when stress can overwhelm us:
A psychologist walked around a room while teaching stress management to an audience. As she raised a glass of water, everyone expected they’d be asked the “half empty or half full” question. Instead, with a smile on her face, she inquired: “How heavy is this glass of water?”
Answers called out ranged from 8 oz. to 20 oz.
She replied, “The absolute weight doesn’t matter. It depends on how long I hold it. If I hold it for a minute, it’s not a problem. If I hold it for an hour, I’ll have an ache in my arm. If I hold it for a day, my arm will feel numb and paralyzed. In each case, the weight of the glass doesn’t change, but the longer I hold it, the heavier it becomes.”
She continued, “The stresses and worries in life are like that glass of water. Think about them for a while and nothing happens. Think about them a bit longer and they begin to hurt. And if you think about them all day long, you will feel paralyzed – incapable of doing anything.”
Remember to put the glass down.
Stress refers to “the effect of anything in life to which people must adjust.” (Source: International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies). Anything we consider challenging – even something we willingly choose to do – causes stress. This is because it requires us to adjust our attention, behavior, physical energy and mental activity. While periodic doses of stress can be a good thing, continuous or excessive stress completely wears down any person. At some point there will be a breaking point – which will show itself in function, behavior, and/or disease.
Eustress is a positive and healthy form of stress. Eustress keeps us motivated and excited about life. A lot of stress we experience is needed to create new memories, allows us to use the right brain’s problem solving skills and create a solution for the future.
On the flip side, the negative side of stress is called Distress. When something traumatic happens, the human mind needs time to process what happened and to accept whatever “new normal” has resulted. So, someone who doesn’t fall apart right away, still must process the trauma at some point or they will fall apart later. The psychological trauma comes from stress and change.
With stress, the hormones Adrenaline and Cortisol come into play. These stress hormones are critical in a fight-or-flight situation. Adrenaline increases the heart rate, raises blood pressure, diverts blood away from certain areas of the brain and internal organs to the muscles to increase the force of muscle contractions, and speeds up respiration. Cortisol increases glucose levels so sufficient fuel is available for muscles to use. It also temporarily inhibits other systems of the body, such as digestion, growth, reproduction and the immune system (this explains the link between stress and illness!). While these hormone secretions are essential in an emergency, it is not healthy to have the spigots on full force for long periods of time, like in the chronic stress situations modern man experiences.
The chart below shows how adrenaline affects us in ways that can be good in short bursts but perhaps is detrimental over the long term (such as in chronic stress situations.
Adrenaline: Friend or Foe?
- Increases speed and strength
- Decreases reaction time
- Increases sensory acuity
- Freezing and unable to react
- May act in a way that seems inappropriate for the situation (e.g. giggling or yelling)
- Can make you feel energized
- Can make you feel shaky, weak or sick to your stomach
- Feeling as though time as slowed down
- Tunnel vision
- Difficulty concentrating and thinking clearly
- Decreases coordination
- Decreases how much people feel pain
It is very important to be able to recognize the signs that stress has reached the point of interfering with effective coping.
SIGNS OF EMOTIONAL DISTRESS
|Jumpiness, nervousness||Misdirected irritablility|
|Dry mouth||Unable to concentrate|
|Pounding heart||Easily startled by noise / movement|
|Nightmares||Loss of confidence|
|Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea||Overexcitement|
|Difficulty thinking||Excessive worry|
|Difficulty speaking, communicating||Depression|
I would venture the thought that we all have someone in our lives that exhibit some of these signs of emotional distress. Not only does modern life put us in repeated stressful situations but it also seems to reduce our opportunities to step back, out of those stressful states, for the all-important step of decompression. We all need to find something that allows us to let go of those situations and lifestyles that cause constantly increased levels of stress hormones.
In other words:
Remember to put the glass down!
Watch for Part 3.