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Do you ever wonder why some people emerge from the same traumatic experiences more resiliently than others?
A strong contributing factor is the difference in negative self-beliefs. Like a wound that was never properly treated, trauma and other negative life events can often leave us thinking negatively about ourselves or the world around us for years to come.
Emotional first aid to treat these kinds of wounds is something you can learn. Mental health First Aid is a growing field of crisis response, but there are some specific skills you can learn today to help you cope with negative life events. Much like how we are taught to treat a broken bone, scrape, or bloody nose, you can learn how to take care of your thoughts and feelings following negative events.
Emotional first aid has become increasingly relevant after recent tragedies across the country. The survivors of these terrible tragedies surely have months and years of physical recovery ahead of them, but one of the overlooked aspects of recovery following traumatic events like these is the emotional health of the victims.
How the victims of these events interpret what happened to them will have a huge impact on their emotional recovery. Some of them will surely develop understandable fears of being in public places, or being around large crowds, as they may not feel safe. Others may develop survivor’s guilt if they lost loved ones but were not injured themselves. “I should’ve died, not them” is an example of a common belief following a tragedy like this. While these beliefs can be understandable, they are very harmful to the person’s ability to recover from the event.
Let’s say you were a survivor of a mass shooting. Instead of the negative self-beliefs described above, it would be preferable to form the self-belief “I’m a survivor” instead of “I’m not safe.” “I’m alive for a reason” would be more affirming than “It should’ve been me.” These might seem like subtle differences, but they make a big impact in how we live and work after going through an event like this.
My hope for the survivors of violence, trauma, and mistreatment anywhere is that they are able to use the following emotional first aid techniques to help them develop positive self assessments, despite the circumstances they have experienced.
How we frame the events we experience, especially as children, determines a lot about how we view ourselves and the world around us. I’ve written about how I framed moving from New Jersey to Maryland at the age of 13 and how it had a large impact on why I eventually became a therapist. I’m certainly not comparing moving at a young age to other, more violent traumas. However, it’s important to recognize that trauma is subjective — just because it wouldn’t be traumatic to you doesn’t mean it couldn’t have a large impact on someone else. You can use positive framing to improve your resilience to a wide range of negative experiences.
To establish positive framing, the questions to answer are:
- “What do you want this event to say about you?” or,
- “What do you want this event to tell you about the world?”
It is tremendously important that you be able to answer these questions in positive, self-affirming ways.
Just like washing out a cut helps prevent infection, establishing positive frameworks helps prevent negative self beliefs.
How This Works In Practice
I had the privilege of working with someone who had received a scary medical diagnosis. It was scary both because the cause was unknown and because my patient was unusually young to be receiving this diagnosis. They admitted that their resulting anxiety was high as they found themselves questioning why they hadn’t been more prepared (gotten more life insurance or long term disability, for example), even though there is no way they could have known this was going to happen to them.
Here’s what the initial negative framing looked like:
I failed because I wasn’t more prepared.
I can’t handle this.
I’m never going to be healthy again.
We can see how this framing could lead to continued anxiety or even paranoia about continued medical issues. These are beliefs based in fear rather than reality.
It is important to be able to find positive or even just neutral framing as soon after the incident/trauma as possible. Neutral framing can be a good place to start. Here are some neutral examples for this same example:
I don’t know why this happened, but I can control how I take care of myself.
I want to learn more about this diagnosis so I can get proper treatment.
I couldn’t have prepared for this, but I can treat this.
I have the support I need to help me get through this.
Here are some even more powerful positive and self-affirming examples:
I will survive this and will be stronger for it.
I can get through anything — even things I’m not expecting.
This diagnosis will not stop me from achieving my goals.
These neutral and positive frameworks can be used as daily affirmations following a crisis or tragedy.
As I continued to work with this patient, I had them continue to monitor their self-talk. They were assigned to find a positive way to frame the circumstance, even if they felt weak or disappointed in themselves for how they handled something.
Over time this patient has increased their ability to be resilient to negative outcomes, and they now take the step of affirming their strengths and capabilities on a daily basis.
While it might seem like positive affirmations or simply changing the interpretation of negative life events couldn’t have this much of an effect, consider how negative your thoughts often are on a day to day basis and how they affect your moods.
- Annoyed by the alarm clock, traffic, job, or family stressors?
- Angered or anxious about political or social issues?
- Frustrated about not meeting personal goals?
- Feeling stuck in a relationship or job that makes you unhappy?
These daily circumstances are minor compared to larger-scale negative life events. Imagine how much more worse things can get if you aren’t resilient.
This is why things like daily affirmations, journaling, and gratitude practices are among the first steps I work on with patients.
How to do emotional first aid self-care
Here’s how to do emotional first aid after having an emotionally traumatic experience. You can do this as an inner dialogue, as a journaling exercise, or in conversation with a supportive friend:
Awareness: Pause to become mindful of your own thought patterns. Look for judgemental or negative self-talk, “explanations” or self-blame (for example, “I deserved this because…”), or fearful outlooks (“I’ll never be able to go to a concert again.”)
Inquiry: Gently ask yourself if these thoughts are really true, or if they are fearful reactions. Imagine how you might respond if you felt greater inner strength. Make a list of things you can be grateful for in the situation, no matter how basic they seem: you have survived. If you are blaming yourself for the situation or for how you’re coping now, forgive yourself.
Affirm: Reframe your negative self-talk with positive affirmations. If positive affirmations seem too difficult, at least try to prepare some neutral affirmations and continue working on them.
Reinforce: Repeat your affirmations to yourself each day, and several times a day if negative thoughts and fears continue to come up.
Be gentle and patient with yourself: emotional fallout from traumatic events can take years to resolve. Like physical first aid, emotional first aid is only a first step. Seek help from mental health professionals just as you would seek help from an EMT or medical doctor.
It’s critical to find balance with how you see yourself and the world. This isn’t just “optimism” or “seeing through rose colored glasses.” This is about making a conscious effort to observe and remind yourself of the strengths and capabilities you have no matter what life throws your way. It’s the first step in treating your emotional wounds to ensure they do not become long-term problems.