Psychological First Aid Articles

The Family Story of Trauma: Ways to Change the Legacy

Sunday, February 17th, 2013

family story of traumaWhether in the past or the present, a traumatic event experienced by one or all members of a family, impacts the entire family system. Be it the violent loss of a child, the devastation from natural disaster, the injury of a combat vet or the suicide of a family member, trauma assaults the lives of all family members and the legacy they share.

How Does a Family Cope?

One of the most important things a family can do in the aftermath of a traumatic event is to find a way over the days, months and even years “to speak about what happened.”

All families engage in story telling. Around the dinner table, in car pools, at holidays, in the middle of the night, family members share the day-to-day experiences of big and small events in their lives. Through the stories they tell, families create the fabric of their life and their legacy.

Why is it Difficult for Families to Speak About Trauma?

  • Families have a difficult time speaking about traumatic events because traumatic events assault the fabric of family life.
  • They are unexpected events that threaten, injure, and take the life that was known and the people that were loved.
  • They leave family members overwhelmed, frightened, angry, haunted with images, self-blaming, and bereft.
  • They are beyond what family members can physically and emotionally comprehend.
  •  Traumatic events feel “beyond words”.

Family Protection Through Silence and Avoidance

Given this impact of trauma, the inclination of many family members is to protect each other by not speaking about the trauma.In an effort to spare others from more pain, prevent the stirring of feelings, avoid contaminating with traumatic memories, or burdening the family with grief, both adults and children disavow history, deny feelings and often avoid connection. The myth is that “if we don’t talk about it we can live beyond it.”

Historically we know that the opposite is true. As  trauma expert, Cathy Caruth says, trauma “will out” in one way or another in spite of being silenced or denied. What can’t be said must be carried and acted out.


Reducing Disaster’s Impact: A Simple Guide to Psychological First Aid

Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Nationally and internationally, the most endorsed response in the early aftermath of a disaster is Psychological First Aide.  Used by those responding to disasters, it is a set of guidelines that you can learn to use for yourself and others.

Just as knowing certain aspects of Medical First Aid can help you minimize injury and reduce future medical complications, knowing and using certain aspects of Psychological First Aid can help you reduce the emotional impact of a disaster and its consequences.

Here are Five Steps for Using Psychological First Aid

 I. Establish Physical Safety

  • Given the body-mind connection, it is necessary to secure physical and medical safety as a first step to psychological safety.
  • In securing what is needed to maintain physical safety (food, shelter, water, heat) it is often helpful to access options and then make a temporary or working plan that can be updated. This often mobilizes people to safety, as they know they are not making permanent decisions.  

 Families have moved in together in arrangements they never would have dreamed possible-as a way of keeping each other safe.

II. Establish Psychological Safety

  • Accept and normalize your feelings.Recognize that feelings of disbelief, fear, terror, helplessness, and anger are very common to the situation you have faced. For most people they may persist as difficulty sleeping, intrusive thoughts and memories, or a sense of numbing for a week or two and then dissipate.
  • In those cases where someone displays a sense of disorientation, unremitting panic or inability to cope, emergency medical care is warranted.
  • You have often heard the expression “ What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” – Well, Not So Fast.
  • Consider that while people differ, for most of us, it takes a while to adapt to a crisis situation. Even as people are busy surviving and helping others survive, survivors are often feeling a mix of relief, pain and uncertainty. It makes sense.
  • Recognize that in disasters – SMALL THINGS ARE BIG in making us feel less helpless.
  • Look for those things you can control. Set up achievable goals- be it playing a game with the children; finding …

The Denver Movie Shooting: A Dark Catastrophe

Friday, July 20th, 2012

movie tragedyThe definition of catastrophe is an event causing great and often sudden damage or suffering. The early morning shooting and killing of 12 people and wounding of others as they eagerly began viewing the latest Batman movie; “The Dark Knight Rises,” tragically qualifies.

As we shockingly take stock of this horrific event, we once again dare to imagine the pain of the families or resonate with memories of having faced similar pain. In the face of traumatic loss we are left without words, helpless to understand ‘Why’ and needing to believe there is a way to prevent such events.

We have come to know that even as we can still barely catch a breath and struggle for answers, there are some initial steps of Psychological First Aid (PFA) that offer some relief.

Here are some suggestions worth knowing and owning when life has suddenly become so darkened.


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Suzanne Phillips, Psy.D., ABPP & Dianne Kane, DSW are the authors of Healing Together: A Couple's Guide to Coping with Trauma and Post-Traumatic Stress. Pick up the book today!

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