When I talk about Emotional First Aid I mean simple, body-based practices that can help us shift from triggered, reactive states, into centered, creative states. I’ve put together a “kit” of these portable, easy-to-learn tools to soothe us when we are in crisis-mode, so we can make better choices.
I would like to share with you some of the principles and practices I teach in my Emotional First Aid workshops.
Before I do, let’s look at what happens when we are triggered.
Automatic Survival Strategies: Fight, Flight, Freeze, Appease & Dissociate
Being stressed out or triggered starts when our animal body perceives a threat coming our way. Our reptilian brain (or brain stem) and limbic brain respond swiftly together to restore us to safety. Before we know it, before we know why, we react. You may know this swift reaction as the “fight or flight” response.
“Fight or flight” is actually a repertoire of at least five automatic survival responses: fight, flight, freeze, appease, and dissociate.
The fight response can show up as clenching the jaw and/or hands/arms, or it can look like defensiveness, argumentativeness.
The flight response can involve actually leaving the scene, or it can show up as our muscles pulling back and away from a perceived threat. It can also take the form of distracting from or avoiding certain subjects.
By the same token, a freeze response can mean silence, holding our breath, feeling paralyzed. On the outside, we may seem poker-faced or extremely calm.
The appease response can look like smiling, submissive body language, or letting others invade our physical space. It can also show up as caretaking others, “making nice” or trying to smooth things over.
The dissociate response involves “checking out” from our experience, not noticing our sensations and feelings. This can show up as a faraway look in our eyes, or a feeling that we are not “all there.” It looks like emotional detachment, forgetfulness, being caught up in our thoughts, or trying to figure out everything.
These survival responses are swift and automatic. We cannot stop them. That’s a good thing—survival strategies have kept our species alive by overriding slower brain/body functions. When a predator is chasing you, it’s not the time for strategy and reflection. The goal is to stay alive to strategize and reflect later.
In a crisis, survival responses will kick in faster than anything else.
It’s important to accept that fact, especially when we feel hijacked by our survival strategies. When we see ourselves automatically placating (appease) others, or staying silent (freeze) when it’s time to speak up about injustice, it is easy to blame ourselves.
It may seem counterintuitive to accept and appreciate our survival responses, but if we judge ourselves for our automatic survival reactions, that “I am bad!” message keeps our reptilian brain in reactive mode. If instead we can notice when we are in our survival responses, we can gradually reduce the length of time we spend in these reactive states. Learning how to soothe our brains and bodies with compassion and patience is key.
Emotional first aid practices can help us notice early on when we are triggered or reactive, and help us soothe and re-center ourselves.
Principles & Practices of Emotional First Aid: GRASP
I like to sum up Emotional First Aid principles and practices with the acronym GRASP, or Ground, Restore, Awareness, Safety, and Practice.
GRASP reminds me that when I get really “wound up” or “shut down,” I am/my body is grasping onto something. My reactions may be unconscious and automatic, but they aremine. In other words, when I freak out or shut down, no one is doing this to me—it is my body reacting to stress by tightening itself up. I am the one doing it. This means I can learn to ungrasp. Emotional first aid practices help us notice we are grasping, and give us ways to soften our grip and create options.
To ground is to feel connected to and rooted in the earth. This means being present and alive in your lower body, legs and feet.
Here are some simple grounding practices:
• While standing, sitting or lying down, pay attention to the support you are receiving from the chair/floor/earth. Pay close attention to the sensations in your back, butt and feet. Really notice the sensations in your muscles and nerve endings; notice how the contact and pressure of the floor or chair comes up to meet your body. When you lie down on the floor, imagine the vast earth beneath it supporting your back. Feel how deep, broad and reliable this support is; pay attention to your sensations as you sink into it.
• Ground in “what is” by sending healing energy to any place in your body that is in distress. Imagine the earth’s energy is coming up through your feet and flowing through your body and out the top of your head. At the same time, imagine the energy of the sky is flowing into the top of your head, down through your body and out your tailbone. As this dual flow continues, rub your hands together to wake up the energy centers in your palms. Imagine the earth and sky energies gathering and blending in your heart, flowing into your shoulders, arms, and gathering between your hands. Choosing a part of your body that feels uncomfortable or tense, bring your energized hands to that part, allowing the energy to flow in. Stay with this for a few minutes; notice what happens.
• Take three deep breaths, letting each exhalation fall out with a big sigh.
To restore is to return to a state of hope, connection and balance. Here are some simple restoring practices:
• Appreciations— speak aloud or write down 1-3 things you appreciate or feel grateful for; slow down and savor the feelings.
• Recreating resilience: think about an activity or being that makes you feel really good, or hopeful. This may include creative or athletic expression (drawing, singing, dancing, knitting, running, swimming etc) connecting to Spirit, animals, nature, or loved ones or community. Stay with this feeling for a few minutes; gain, really savor the feelings and sensations in your muscles and skin as you remember this experience.
• Try this energy healing balancing breath (This practice is nice to do as you are falling asleep):
Repeat each step 3 times:
• Imagine as you inhale that you are bringing breath into the sole of your left foot and up your leg, into your buttock; as you exhale, send the exhalation through your right buttock, down your right leg, and out your right foot.
• Reverse this, inhaling into the right foot, up through the right leg, and out the left leg and foot.
• Breathe in through the left foot/leg and out the right shoulder, arm and hand.
• Breathe in through the right leg and out the left arm.
• Breathe in through the left arm, and out the right arm.
• Breathe in through the left hand/arm, out the right leg.
• Breathe in through the right hand/arm, out through the left leg Remember to do each side three times.
Awareness means being grounded in “what is” by feeling the sensations in your body.
Here are some simple Awareness practices:
• Practice feeling and identifying the sensations in your body (sensations can include temperature, movement or stillness, blankness or numbness, a sense of contact or pressure, or imagery (for example, your arms may feel like wings or your knees like bowling balls). Spend a few seconds being right inside the heart of each sensation.
• Name the mood in your body (if my body was a person, what would their mood be?)
• Notice where you feel tense or exposed/vulnerable in your body?
If you notice your body feels unsafe, try some of the “HEY” practices below.
Safety means giving your body experiences of feeling safe, where your body feels protected and/or able to take care of itself.
There are three safety principles that I find to be helpful. I gave them the acronym HEY, which represents Holding, Escape, and Yes.
Holding means giving your body a feeling of being held, of having a sense of boundary, of beginning and end. You can give yourself this feeling with or without props. Here are some holding practices:
With props: you can use blankets, pillows, eyebags or sandbags, a wall, the floor, or water to give your body a sense of being held. You could put a sandbag on your chest, or hide under a pile of pillows, get in a warm bath and feel the water holding your skin, or wrap yourself in blankets. You can wear a thick scarf or hoodie and feel the coziness. Notice which parts of your body like being held the most, and notice how you feel when you allow yourself to really rest inside that holding.
You can also give yourself a sense of holding without props. You can push your arms against your sides; push your legs together; cradle your arm(s) around your head, push your feet against a wall, and notice where you begin and end. Do each of these gently but firmly for at least five seconds, then pause and repeat. Notice which of these practices feel good to you.
Escape means checking out or shutting down consciously.Here is how it works:
We all have habits that we use to soothe or distract ourselves. Eating ice cream, drinking caffeine, sleeping too much, watching TV, self-medicating, working too much, etc. While they have unpleasant side effects that limit our lives and our ability to be in relationship with others, these habits are survival strategies that have successfully gotten us through hard times.
The first part of Escape is bringing an appreciative attitude toward your habit. When a habit is so automatic, it means that we have practiced this strategy thousands of times (because at some point we had good reason to). As a result of all this practice, this habit is now a highly developed skill. For example, if I find myself constantly daydreaming during stressful situations, it means I am an accomplished, world-class daydreamer. I deserve a gold medal in dissociation! At some point it was a smart thing to do (otherwise I wouldn’t have practiced it so much), and now I am really good at it!
The second part of Escape is to view your habits pragmatically. Think of each habit or survival strategy as one of your tools. See them as reliable back up practices. Give yourself permission to use them when you need to, and use them consciously. If you practice this way, eventually you will own and operate your survival strategies as tools (instead of being owned by them). You will be able to choose when and how you use (or don’t use) these tools.
The third part of Escape is to choose and practice healthy and sustainable tools (ones without unpleasant side effects), so that you have a sense of options. Eventually you might not need to use the unhealthy tools except when they are the best tools for the situation.
YES means collaborating with whatever your body is doing. Here is how it works:
When you find areas of contraction or tension in your body, say “yes” to them. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and tell you trust they are working hard to take care of you. Tell them they are doing a good job! As you say yes, gently increase the tension or holding for a few seconds. Act like you and your body are a team, doing something important together. See what happens when you join with your body appreciatively instead of fighting it…the body always feels safer when we appreciate and support its efforts. Often with safety comes softening.
The principle of practice encompasses both action and attitude. Practice as action involves doing something over and over until it “comes naturally.” Practice as attitude means practicing is the focus (not achievement).
You need to practice something at least 300 times for it to become familiar, and 3000 times for the practice to become part of you.
If this seems like a lot, ask yourself how many times you have practiced putting on your shoes. How many times have you practiced criticizing yourself (yet another thing that stimulates the fight or flight response)?
Try out the above practices briefly and often. Brief, daily practices are more effective than long, occasional practice. The key is repetition over time The more we practice, the more these practices become speed dial buttons that allow us to recover our grounding and sense of safety very quickly. Keep your practice light.
Bring curiosity and exploration into your practice. Practice to discover what practices your body likes best, and then give your body these gifts as often as possible.
Practice is an ordinary, often unconscious part of life that you can turn into a conscious choice. Each day set the intention to practice what you want to be; when you practice you are the sculptor sculpting yourself. What you practice is what you embody. And it is a way to create good karma.
Many thanks to Denise Benson, Staci Haines, Phyllis Pay, Joann Lyons, and my Dharma teachers for their wisdom and support.