Emotional first aid
A simple answer to this is as follows: if you had badly hurt yourself, you wouldn’t ignore it, you would get a bandage or a plaster or seek medical treatment. In times of crisis, our emotions suffer injury and need the same urgency of attention, care and healing.
What do we mean by emotional first aid?
Emotional first aid helps to lessen the impact of anxiety (it can also help with depression or trauma.) Anxiety is a totally appropriate reaction to challenging circumstances; such as the times we find ourselves in now. If you were currently feeling zero anxiety amid the Covid-19 crisis then frankly this would be more of a cause for concern.
Anxiety is a survival state. When we are anxious it can manifest as intrusive thoughts, images or memories, over-reactive feelings and behaviour and odd physical sensations. This can quite quickly lead to overwhelm, which means different things for different people, but is never a healthy state to occupy.
I have highlighted four examples of emotional first aid below but its worth remembering that there are many examples, and it’s important to find one that works best for you.
Get out of your head (in a healthy way)
When we feel anxious, we usually get intrusive thoughts which tend to revolve around negative future scenarios or worrying about how we are going to be judged by others. Anxiety has an uncanny knack of hi-jacking the here-and-now. Our senses are a natural antidote to anxiety because they are a present-moment phenomena.
For instance, what are you aware of, right now, in your present environment? Notice the noises around you, both close and further away. Now notice the objects around you and describe them one by one to yourself. Pick up an object and notice its texture and weight. Notice how you are sat or stood as you read this, feel your two feet on the floor and the gentle pull of gravity underneath you.
Coming out of your thoughts and into your senses helps calms the nervous system and reminds the body it is safe in the here-and-now, rather than under threat in the thought-driven future.
Resources, resources, resources
Resources are things that have meaning for us, which we can connect to and embody in times of stress in order to feel calmer and more grounded.
Take a moment to assess how anxious you feel right now on a scale of 1-10 and make a mental note of the number. Now, bring to mind something meaningful, something that helps you feel good. This is your resource. It could be a memory, an object, an image, a safe place, a person, a pet, an aspect of nature – anything that has meaning for you. Now embody your resource as much as you can; what are the sights, sounds, smells and textures associated with your resource? If you feel calmer are you able to locate that calmness in your body?
When you are ready, come back to your stress-scale; has your number increased, stayed the same, or reduced?
Become a jedi master (of your anxiety)
Anxiety is a bodily event; when we think or feel something stressful, our body lets us know. Mastering the intrusive nature of anxiety so that we can recover a feeling of agency and calm is all about awareness and body listening. This can be seen as a simple threefold process known as self-regulation:
Firstly: notice when you are anxious by paying attention to your body’s signals. Perhaps your anxiety manifests as fidgeting or repetitive actions or unhelpful impulses or a racing head, or palpitations or feeling ‘too visible’ or a feeling of heat or tingling or even feeling a bit ‘out of body’.
Secondly: draw on one of your resources. Remember a resource is something that has meaning for you, that you are able to connect to and embody in order to calm down. Really inhabit your resource using all your sensory awareness.
Thirdly: notice again, how you feel. More anxious? Less anxious? (Hopefully the latter.)
Find the compassion, it really works
The ability to cultivate a compassionate voice is one of the major antidotes to anxiety. Developing self-compassion means developing the ability to relate to yourself differently. Anxiety tends to come with a critical or judgemental voice. Our identity is composite, made up of many different and often conflicting ‘self-states’. When we are stressed a critical self-state takes over. But when we are able to access other, less critical self-states and give them a voice too, we can begin to cultivate self-compassion.
Think of an anxious scenario and then listen internally. Do you hear a critical or judgemental self-state and if so, what does it say? It it a familiar voice? Now thank that self-state and ask it to step aside for a moment. Is there another self-state that might have a more compassionate view on this anxious scenario? If there is, what might it say instead?
Like most things, emotional first-aid takes practice. But it is well worth trying. When we talk about emotional first aid, really what we are talking about is kindness; to ourselves and by extension to others. Because, if anything, this Covid-19 crisis has shown us that we are inexorably connected in far-reaching ways. And kindness is the only real antidote to crisis.
A qualified counsellor can help you manage anxiety if you feel that it is too much to deal with alone. Online and telephone sessions are now offered by many therapists, and they can work with you to find the best means of support.