National Post (Latest Edition)

‘PSYCHOLOGI­CAL FIRST AID’

CORONAVIRU­S PANDEMIC HAS SHOWN US WE NEED SKILLS TO TAKE CARE OF OUR ANXIETY

- Stacey Colino

If ever there were a time for people to know the important skills that make up what mental health experts refer to as “psychologi­cal first aid,” a pandemic is it. Like regular first aid, PFA is a way of helping someone in pain — except rather than cleaning and bandaging a cut or applying ice to a sprained ankle, you tend to someone’s anxiety or distress in a way that will ease it and help restore a sense of equanimity. Many disaster responders and public health profession­als have been trained in PFA, but it’s time for the rest of us to join them, so we can help our families, our friends and ourselves.

“These are life skills — ( and) psychologi­cal first aid is even more essential in times such as a pandemic,” says George S. Everly, a clinical psychologi­st and professor of internatio­nal health in the Center for Humanitari­an Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and author of The Johns Hopkins Guide to Psychologi­cal First Aid.

The pandemic’s psychologi­cal ripple effects are different from, say, those of natural disasters, which last merely hours or days. “The pandemic is like the never- ending story,” says Everly. “What makes this more psychologi­cally toxic is that we keep receiving new impacts” as resurgence­s and new outbreaks occur, and more collateral damage to life and work, as we knew them, becomes apparent.

Meanwhile, on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis we’re subjected to bad news from multiple directions — not just about the pandemic, the economy and racial issues, but about political scandals, civic tensions, fires, floods, conspiracy theories and more — without the in- person support of friends, extended family and colleagues because of the pandemic. “The world seems more uncertain than ever — uncertaint­y is a powerful toxin,” Everly says.

Fortunatel­y, you can dial down your stress reactivity and come to your own emotional rescue — or that of others — with Pfa-based strategies. Following are tips on how to put the components of PFA into practise for yourself and those you care about.

ADDRESS BASIC BODILY NEEDS

If you know people struggling to get enough food, water or shelter, help them directly or indirectly ( by steering them toward community resources).

As far as your own needs, make a conscious effort to consume nutritious foods, stay hydrated, get enough sleep, do some form of physical activity every day and avoid using substances such as alcohol or cigarettes to cope, advises Kaushal Shah, a psychiatri­c researcher at Griffin Memorial Hospital in Norman, Okla., who has done research on PFA.

AVOID FURTHER HARM

Protecting people from additional distress is a key aspect of PFA, and there are several ways you can do this for yourself and others. First, check to make sure conditions are physically safe, then take steps to ensure emotional safety by treating others and yourself with respect and compassion. “Remind yourself that whatever you’re feeling or going through right now is perfectly normal,” says Nancy Haugen, a clinical psychologi­st in San Francisco. “That (acknowledg­ment) tends to bring down some anxiety.”

Try to protect yourself from informatio­n overload. New research, involving 6,514 adults in the United States, found that people who have higher daily hours of COVID- 19- related media exposure and exposure to conflictin­g COVID-19 informatio­n in the media are at greater risk for pandemic- related acute stress and depressive symptoms.

KEEP CALM TO CARRY ON

Maintainin­g a gentle tone of voice can have a calming effect on distressed people around you. In addition, remind yourself and encourage others to do a relaxing activity — such as yoga, mindfulnes­s meditation, deep breathing or progressiv­e muscle relaxation — every day. This will help you de-stress in a given moment and maintain your psychologi­cal equilibriu­m, Shah says.

At regular intervals throughout the day — or when you feel stress- overload coming on — hit the pause button on what you’re doing and focus on deep breathing.

SET PRIORITIES

In tumultuous times, it’s easy to feel overwhelme­d with worries and fears. So PFA encourages people to consider their most urgent needs, including how to prioritize and address them, versus what can wait. To that end, it helps to distinguis­h between what you can and can’t control and to encourage loved ones to do the same. Then focus on the situations you can do something about, such as how you protect yourself and your family, how you behave toward others and how you spend your free time.

BUILD HOPE

Especially during periods of uncertaint­y, it’s important to stay positive with learned or active optimism and remain forward- focused, Everly says. One effective way to do this is to consciousl­y focus on what’s going right in your life now. Research has found that having a ratio of three positive emotions to every negative emotion helps people flourish. You can stack the deck in your favour by “looking for positive moments and holding onto them throughout the day,” says Haugen, who is also an associate professor of psychiatry at the UCSF Medical School.

CONNECT WITH OTHERS

“The single best predictor of human resilience is support from other people,” Everly says. So, help people identify sources of social support in their lives with a reminder that the goal is to practise “physical distancing,” not “social distancing,” during the pandemic. Contact friends and family members on social media and make an effort to rekindle old friendship­s by phone, text, email or video conferenci­ng. Also, consider establishi­ng your own COVID-19- safe pod or bubble so you can spend in- person time with supportive people.

PRACTISE GOOD COMMUNICAT­ION

When people are distressed, practise active listening by giving them your undivided attention and letting them take their time expressing themselves, rather than pressuring them to talk or immediatel­y providing advice. These are key PFA skills. “It’s about being able to hear, rather than just listen,” Haugen says. Try to truly understand the person’s concerns and feelings and show empathy. Use supportive words that reflect the key points he or she made.

REINFORCE COPING SKILLS

Ask someone who is distressed how he or she coped with difficult situations in the past and encourage the person to use those strengths and strategies to handle the current situation. (Do the same exercise yourself.) This contribute­s to a sense of confidence and competence that will allow them to face and manage the current challenge. It also builds resilience.

What makes this more psychologi­cally toxic is that we keep receiving new impacts.

— CLINICAL PSYCHOLOGI­ST

GEORGE S. EVERLY

 ?? Getty Images / istockphot­o ?? As the 2020 pandemic has taken hold, people have needed to learn how to take better care of themselves.
Getty Images / istockphot­o As the 2020 pandemic has taken hold, people have needed to learn how to take better care of themselves.

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