Want to help those in emotional distress? The key is understanding how to listen

Apr 24, 2016 | 2 comments

People witnessing traumatic events from a distance, Cuenca, in the case of the recent earthquake, are susceptible to varying forms of post traumatic stress disorder and may need the help of those close to them.

chl walt logoMost of us have heard of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While much of the discussions center on individuals who are serving, or have served, in the military in combat zones, and rightfully so, PTSD also affects individuals who have experienced other traumatic events. The earthquake that occurred in Ecuador surely qualifies as such an event.

Individuals who experienced that horrific catastrophe are at risk for PTSD, as are the rescuers and individuals who worked in and saw the aftermath. But, what is less known is that individuals physically removed from the quake zone, who watched the events unfold on the television news or read about them in the newspapers, can also be affected.

Karla Freeman, a fellow columnist at CuencaHighLife, recently wrote an excellent column about helping people who experience trauma to move past the event and go on with their lives. You can read it here. Her recommendations focusechl listend on helping victims following triage and emergency treatment. Her suggestions can certainly provide comfort to those in need.

What I learned when I earned my Ph.D., and during the years I spent in counseling practice, both in public schools and private practice, taught me that psychological pain doesn’t go away quickly. While symptoms can show up immediately, they often take weeks or months to develop.

Of course, the degree of PTSD that an individual experiences, and the seriousness of the effect varies from person to person. The most serious cases may require intensive and long-term therapy. The less serious cases may remain almost invisible.

It is these less-severe cases that you can help with, even if you are not trained as a psychologist. Please understand that talking about the less-severe cases in no way minimizes the devastation of the most-severe occurrences.

Almost all of us have dealt with a person with some level of PTSD when we had the experience of meeting with a friend or acquaintance after they experienced a death in the family. And, most of us have noticed that, even if our friend says they are alright, that they act differently. Sometimes, they exhibit symptoms of depression. Sometimes they refuse to talk about the dead person, or can’t stop talking about him or her. Other times they act as though the death did not occur. These behavior patterns can go on for months.

While it is very possible that a person can complete the mourning process and emerge from it without emotional scars, it is more likely that there is an after effect, lasting for different amounts of time in different individuals.

chl listen2The same thing is true following a natural disaster. Your family, friends and acquaintances may benefit from your help. The question is, “how do I best help?”

One of the most important things you can do to help is simply to listen. Listening to a person who is in pain is both easy and hard. It is easy because we have all listened to people we care about. We know how to be with someone and have a conversation. But, that prior knowledge also makes the process somewhat difficult. Listening to a person who is troubled is not the same as having a normal conversation with them, no matter how close you are to them.

A big problem for most us who are trying to help is that we often want to share our own experiences. But, we have to realize that our experiences are not important to the other person at the beginning of our listening time. When we say, “Something similar happened to me…” we shut off the other person’s opportunity to express his or her pain. It is much better to ask, “How did that make you feel?” than to talk about your own situation. You can do that later, after the healing has begun.

Another thing that can shut off the other person’s healing is to say, after listening to them, “I know how you feel.” We often say that to express empathy with the other person, to let them know that they aren’t alone with their pain.

None of us truly knows, however, how another person feels, and when the sufferer hears what we think, they have a tendency to withdraw. It is much better to say, “I can imagine how you feel.” That statement expresses empathy without challenging the validity of the other person’s feeling.

If we are to help, it is important to understand the difference in “sympathy” and “empathy.” Sympathy can be thought of as feeling sorry for someone. Empathy can be explained as understanding or connecting with someone at the emotional level.

You don’t have to be a trained therapist to help a person who experiences traumatic events. To be helpful, you should do three things.

First, look for changes in a person’s behavior that let you know that the person is uncomfortable. Again, you don’t have to be a trained therapist to see when a person you know is acting differently. They may talk more than usual. Or, they may talk less. They may tell you that their sleep patterns have changed — sleeping more or less than they usually do. They may eat or drink more or less than normal. If these changes last for an appreciable time, they might indicate an ongoing problem. It’s important to remember that these changes might occur weeks or even months after a traumatic event, so don’t think that it is only important to look for any changes immediately following a catastrophe.

Second, listen to what the person says. And, just as importantly, listen to what the person doesn’t say. The professionals call it “listening with empathy.” It means that one listens to the words, the tone of voice, senses the body language, and understands the feelings that the other person demonstrates. The feelings may come out in a variety of wasys — words, voice or body language. If they don’t seem to go together, for example, if a person gets teary-eyed when talking about an innocuous occurrence, it might be a sign of unresolved feelings.

Third, and last, decide if you want to help. You are not obligated to help someone else, but if you decide to try, you have a responsibility to follow through. If you say to someone, “why don’t we talk about it?” it isn’t fair to them if you listen for a sentence or two and then explain that you don’t have time to talk more.

If you don’t feel comfortable helping, you don’t have to make the offer. But if you decide to get involved, let the other person know you care about them, and commit to the process for a reasonable period of time. Perhaps it will only take five minutes for the situation to resolve. Perhaps it will mean giving an hour of your time, or more. There is no way to absolutely predict it. You, of course, can set a limit when you begin. It is perfectly okay to say, “If you want to talk, you have my total attention for the next 10 minutes, (or half-hour, or whatever period of time you decide to devote to the person).”

Don’t be afraid to get involved. You can’t make them feel any worse than they already do. And, you may well make a positive difference in her or his life!


Walter Panko and his wife, Karen, moved to Cuenca from the U.S in 2015. He is a retired educator and business owner looking forward to adapting to and adopting the local culture. He is experiencing life in Cuenca through “Gringo Eyes” and sharing some of his observations.


Walter Panko

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