Trauma first aid: How to deal with and heal from traumatic events … and help others

Apr 22, 2016 | 0 comments

You know the advice about putting on your oxygen mask or your life jacket first before you help others. It is true because you are better able to help others when you are not reacting from your own trauma.Karla logo

In light of the terrible earthquake on Ecuador’s coast, I think it’s important to refresh ourselves about how to prepare ourselves for catastrophic events, and how to show resiliency under difficult circumstances.

Resiliency means we have the capacity to recover as a person, a country, and a community. Everyone experiences their own response to disasters, and shock reactions are normal survival mechanisms.

Here is a mini-course on first aid for shock:

  1. First thing is to understand that shock is a normal response to a sudden event like in this case an earthquake.
  2. Our nervous system copes by responding with the survival tools of fight, flight or freeze or at different times all three reactions.
  3. Animals in the wild release shock automatically by reorienting to the present situation but people tend to rationalize circumstances which often prevents us from following our animal instincts. We might think we need to wait for a state of normalcy to return.

    chl quake tents

    Earthquake survivors set up tents.

  4. Once the traumatic event is over, reestablish equilibrium by relaxing in some way like sleeping or walking or smelling the flowers. It will take some time to bring awareness back to the here and now.
  5. Being comforted by other people is a good way to come out of shock. A warm voice or a hug or even listening to a song or music can remind our nervous system we survived. Make sure you are around people.
  6. Once you start to feel more “normal” you might release the feelings and even tell the story. But remember you can be over-stimulated by revisiting the event over and over and can keep you in the shock/trauma response.

Symptoms of unhealed shock look like fight, being angry or irritated more than usual or more than the situation requires. Our bodies can also stay stuck in the flight or freeze response like talking a lot or really fast, moving too fast, sleep problems, feeling anxious or even sick or just not feeling anything and feeling numb.

Giving your system time is the best way to think about recovering from shock. Consider this to be a kind of first aid and, depending on the degree of trauma, healing will take time.

The following is an explanation of what trauma first aid looks like when you’re helping others.

Not only trained trauma therapists, but also friends, can help the person start to recover immediately after the event.

  1. When you are trying to help another in shock, get yourself comfortable first. You are holding place, like an anchor or a tree, for them to hang on to so they can start to relax.
  2. You can place a hand on their shoulder, providing both emotional support and a way for the person to start to calm down. Words like, “you are safe now, you are okay,” tell the brain to understand that the event, such as an earthquake, is over.”
  3. They might cry, shake, and look frightened. Wait it out and be there for them.
  4. A glass of water and helping them look around might also help.
  5. Adrenalin is going to be present. It takes a while to leave one’s body, and rest and fluids help.
  6. Remind them they are not alone and there is help available.
  7. Telling a story of how you recovered from an upsetting event is good therapy. We recover in community better than alone.

Ultimately, helping others to heal helps our own healing, and provides resources for future traumas.


Karla Freeman

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