Cultivating Compassion with Red Cross Psychological First Aid Training

By CC McGraw, Red Cross Volunteer

Once COVID-19 reached the United States and everything began to shut down, it was hard to grasp the severity of this whole thing. As an athlete at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, our spring season was canceled completely, and we were immediately moved off campus and forced to complete the rest of the semester online.

Inevitably, this was a big change for all of the athletes, especially since we had grown so used to having such crazy hectic schedules and nonstop training. This was heartbreaking to say the least, but our athletics department prioritized our mental health and stress levels by taking certain initiatives of providing access to meditation apps and ensuring we were staying connected with our teams via Zoom.

CC McGraw, UMN Gopher Volleyball (photo provided by CC)

For me, those efforts were a kind of psychological first aid, a bandage for mental health. Like a good bandage, psych first aid brings mental health stability during emergencies, especially during disasters. Psych first aid mitigates acute distress and serves as a bridge to continued support and care if necessary.

Whatever the case may be, it’s always important that those affected by a disaster are provided with empathetic and practical psychological support. This begins with a strong, compassionate, and supportive presence by an American Red Cross volunteer. But it can also begin with you, now at home, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

To help, the Red Cross is offering online psych first aid training for free. I recently completed the training, and I realize the necessity for it now more than ever. Emotional distress is not always as visible as a physical injury, and yet it has the power to be just as painful and debilitating.

After going through a life-altering experience and traumatic event, it’s very common to be affected emotionally. Psych first aid is simply a strategy to reduce the wide range of painful emotions experienced by those with high volumes of stress.

Tips from the American Red Cross online psychological first aid training course

The training touches on the vast range of stress reactions which can be manifested in thoughts, feelings, behaviors, physical effects, and spiritual beliefs. It informs us of the many contributing factors to stress reactions and the role that they play in the distress of the individual. More importantly, it raises awareness on how to analyze the situation, then describes how to approach it accordingly.

There are a variety of actions you can take depending on the situation. However, the training provides twelve main components that you should consistently try to follow. Now that I have them, I feel a new confidence and awareness in order to approach and help those affected.

I’ve found that this training benefits my ability to aid individuals in a more compassionate and supportive way, as well as use this new knowledge to support my family, friends, and others in my community. It’s a tool we can all use to reduce our own stress levels, by simply understanding our reactions to different forms of stress and then applying the principles of psych first aid to enhance our resilience to those stressors.

I recently completed the training, and I realize the necessity for it now more than ever. Emotional distress is not always as visible as a physical injury, and yet it has the power to be just as painful and debilitating.

Of course, I continue to have my worries and doubts with all of the uncertainty that stems from COVID-19, but I also understand that this pandemic is affecting every single person in the world, in some form or another.

Regardless of the circumstance, people are having to sort out their stressors and stress reactions in order to maintain their mental health in quarantine, so this is another reason why the free and online psych first aid course from the Red Cross is so beneficial. It provides you with many forms of stress reactions, stressors, and how to manage your stress in a healthy manner.

I’ve also found that to effectively help and support those around you, you should feel confident that your mental health and stress levels are intact as well.

Disaster affects mental health, too

Photo by Daniel Cima/American Red Cross

Disasters can be devastating and extremely stressful for those impacted. Disasters can force people from their homes. For some, disaster will claim everything they own.  The American Red Cross offers these steps for people to take care of their emotional health as well as that of their family members and friends during disaster recovery, and everyday.

How you may be feeling

  • Feel physically and mentally drained
  • Have difficulty making decisions or
  • staying focused on topics
  • Become easily frustrated on a frequent basis
  • Argue more with family and friends
  • Feel tired, sad, numb, lonely or worried
  • Experience changes in appetite or sleep patterns
  • Most of these reactions are temporary and will go away over time. Try to accept whatever reactions you may have.
  • Look for ways to take one step at a time and focus on taking care of your disaster-related needs and those of your family.

What you can do

  • Take care of your safety. Find a safe place to stay and make sure your physical health needs and those of your family are addressed.
  • Seek medical attention if necessary.
  • Eat healthy.
  • Get some rest.
  • Stay connected with family and friends. Giving and getting support is one of the most important things you can do
  • Be patient with yourself and with those around you.
  • Recognize that everyone is stressed and may need some time to put their feelings and thoughts in order.
  • Set priorities. Tackle tasks in small steps.
  • Gather information about assistance and resources that will help you and your family members meet your disaster-related needs.

Signs you may need additional support

Many people feel better after a few days. Others find that their stress does not go away as quickly as they would like and it influences their relationships with their family, friends and others. If you find yourself or a loved one experiencing some of the feelings and reactions listed below for 2 weeks or longer, this may be a sign that you need to reach out for additional assistance.

  • Crying spells or bursts of anger
  • Difficulty eating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Losing interest in things
  • Increased physical symptoms such as headaches or stomachaches
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling guilty, helpless or hopeless
  • Avoiding family and friends

Photo by Daniel Cima/American Red Cross

Children and Disasters

Children experience traumatic events differently from adults. Experiencing a disaster can leave children feeling frightened, confused and insecure, particularly if this experience is not their first. Because they can’t always talk about their worries, it sometimes comes out in a child’s behavior. Some may react immediately; others may be fine for weeks or months, and then show troubling behavior. Knowing the signs that are common at different ages can help parents recognize problems and respond accordingly.

They may be more agitated or act out. They may be more clingy or cry often. They may need more attention or reassurance from adults they trust. Scary memories become attached to the sounds, sights and smells that happen at the time of the experience. It’s important to remind children that they are remembering the scary thing that happened; that it’s not happening now.

Here are a few tips for talking to children after a traumatic event:

  • Provide children with opportunities to talk
  • Don’t be afraid to admit you don’t have all the answers
  • Allow kids to discuss their fears and concerns
  • Answer questions appropriate for their age.

Additional resources
Contact your local Red Cross Disaster Mental Health or community mental health professional. Please seek immediate help if you or someone you know is feeling that life isn’t worth living or if you are having thoughts of harming yourself or others. You can also contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or SuicidePreventionLifeline.org.

Steps to help you cope after tragedy

After a devastating and tragic event like the mass shooting in Orlando, people may experience many different emotions, such as fear, anger, confusion, shock, disbelief, sadness and grief.

rco_blog_img_psychfirstaidAll of these feelings are normal.

People’s reactions appear in different ways, not only in the way someone feels, but in the way they think and what they think about; their sleeping habits, how they go about daily living; and the way they interact and get along with others.

All of these reactions are normal.

Here are a few steps to help you and others cope:

  • Stay informed, but limit exposure to media coverage of the events.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat healthy, drink plenty of water and get enough rest.
  • Be patient with yourself and others. It’s common to have any number of temporary stress reactions such as anger, frustration and anxiety.
  • Stay connected with your family and other support systems. Reach out and accept help from others.
  • Encourage children to express their feelings and thoughts. Reassure them about their safety.
  • Reach out for free 24/7 counseling or support via the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990 or text “TalkWithUs’ to 66746.

This content originally appeared on redcross.org. To see more, click here