Writings from Christine

How to Talk to Someone in Shock

by on October 13, 2018


Shock, or Acute Stress Disorder (ASD), is a psychological and emotional stress reaction that occurs when a person experiences or witnesses a traumatic event.  One moment everything is normal, then the event happens, and the person immediately feels fear, stress, pain or panic. The shock is magnified when it is combined with or threatened by a physical injury, death, or destruction.

Some examples include:

  • Thinking physical symptoms are a bad case of the flu only to discover that it is terminal cancer with a few months to live.
  • Leaving the house intact and then returning to it destroyed by a storm, fire, or other devastating cause.
  • Walking home and then suddenly grabbed, beaten, and raped.
  • Giving birth to a full-term baby who dies shortly afterward for unknown causes.
  • Driving on a highway when a car in oncoming traffic suddenly hits another car head-on.
  • Being called to go to the hospital as the emergency contact and finding the other person bloody, unconscious, and in critical condition.
  • Hearing shots fired during school hours and immediately taking cover.

Michael was in the middle of a meeting when he received an urgent text message that a tornado touched down in his elderly parent’s neighborhood. Knowing they would never evacuate and living close by, he immediately left the meeting and tried to get in this car. But the weather conditions were so bad that driving was impossible. He froze.

When a person is in a state of shock, time seems to stand still. It is as if everything is happening in slow motion, the sound is muffled, vision is foggy, and a sense of numbness fills the body. Michael could not think, all logic seemed to escape from his brain. He felt as if this was happening to someone else and not him. He panicked.

One of Michael’s colleague recognized that Michael was in a state of shock and moved slowly towards him. Her excellent reaction during that time saved Michael from making poor decisions that could have made the situation much worse. Here is what she did:

  • Do a self-check. In a few seconds, Michael’s colleague assessed her ability to help him. She was calm, slightly elevated heart rate, hypervigilant to her surroundings, but was not fearful or panicky. She was well equipped to help Michael because she was coming from a place of awareness and safety. The worst thing is for a panicked person to try to calm another panicked person. This does not work.
  • Approach gently. She did not rush forward or aggressively to help Michael. Preferably, the approach was slow, intentional, and gentle. Having a relationship with Michael allowed her to gently put her hand on his upper arm, this subtle message of comfort can be grounding for Michael. This let Michael know that she was safe and there to assist him.
  • Ask to help. The first thing she said was, “Can I help?” not, “What is going on?” or “What happened?” By asking permission first, it eases into the conversation allowing Michael to know that she wasn’t going to impose on him. He didn’t even hear the question, but her compassion was evident and soothing.
  • Listen, don’t talk. Even when there was silence, she resisted the temptation to talk and instead waited for Michael to speak. Her stillness and patience gave Michael the ability to come out of the fog shock long enough to explain what happened. Even when his speech was disorganized, she listened and let him tell the story his way and in his words.
  • Express empathy. “This is awful, I can see why you are scared,” she said after Michael finished his story, padding his upper arm in a show of connection. She did not share her own story of a similar event, nor did she immediately try to offer any solutions, instead she allowed the empathy to sink into Michael, so he could be more present.
  • Talk about the next step. For the moment, there was nothing Michael could do. So, she encouraged Michael to sit still and drink some water, so he could gather his thoughts. There was no talking about what could be happening to his parents at this moment, just what was the very next step for Michael.
  • Discuss options. Because Michael felt the empathy and was able to be still for a moment, the logical side of his brain started to activate. His colleague allowed Michael to talk about what to do next without judgment or interjection her own opinions. Michael was able to talk through what do next and come up with a solution that was safe and reasonable.
  • Be encouraging. She also did not say, “Everything is going to be fine,” because she did not know if that was true. Rather, she said to Michael, “You can do this, you have a good plan.” This type of encouragement is beneficial as it motivates someone into action when they are in a state of shock. But it cannot be said too prematurely, or it will cause more frustration. The key is to be empathic first.

Talking correctly to someone in a state of shock can lessen the impact, keep from making matters worse, and prevent any additional harm. This is a skill that everyone should have as tragedy strikes without warning.

Posted under: Writings from Christine

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