I was in a hit and run car accident on my way to work this summer. Immediately after it happened, I found myself stuck in the car, and by some wind of providence, a woman appeared in the street at that very moment, pounded on the window to snap me out of my shock, and helped me climb out of the other side of my vehicle.
As we sat on the curb together waiting for help to arrive, I was confused about why I couldn’t stop crying. This woman was a total stranger to me, but she instantly put her arms around me as if I were her long-lost sister.
“I’m not hurt, I have car insurance…” I blubbered. “Why can’t I stop crying? I feel like my heart is broken! But I know everything is fine!”
“Honey,” she said, squeezing me, “I know, I saw it happen. Just let it out.”
“Wait, wait, wait. I know what this is,” I sniffled, as she wiped the mascara from my cheeks. “At work, they call this Tension Reduction."
When a crisis happens, our reactions aren’t always logical. Floods of adrenaline or cortisol, physical pain, panic, fear—any number of intense emotions and chemical reactions seize our brains and our bodies. They redirect our rational thoughts into responses that can feel out of control, appear outlandish, or jar us from a more reasonable perspective. But those feelings are REAL, and rational or not, we must feel them and work through them if we want to get to the other side of a crisis. The more I tried to tamp down my tears, the stronger the tidal wave became. Only by letting the feelings work through my system could I move through to the next phase of coping with the situation.
Guess what—it’s a lot easier to process those feelings after a crisis if somebody helps you.
My newfound friend in the crosswalk was a living embodiment of another top CPI de-escalation tip: Focus on feelings.
Yes, on a logical level, everything was absolutely fine. I was well insured, unhurt, and had loved ones in my life who dropped everything to come meet me at the scene of the accident and help me. But the accident itself stirred up so many primal brain reactions and physical stress responses that I couldn’t connect to a rational awareness of the situation in the immediate aftermath.
You don’t have to get slammed across an intersection to have a stress reaction that doesn’t make sense. Anxiety expresses itself differently in people, and can be triggered by any number of Precipitating Factors. So sometimes, the easiest way to de-escalate a person in distress is to simply acknowledge the fact that what they are feeling, while perhaps irrational to the outside world, is profoundly real to them. Being present, offering support and compassion, and simply reflecting that you hear them and see them—you might find that these simple efforts are all it takes to help a person successfully de-escalate.
My friend and colleague, Aryn Lietzke, wrote a beautiful post last autumn about being on the other side of this experience. She once found herself in a position of giving somebody a safe space to shed their tears. Along with with a list of tips for empathic listening she shared the following thought:
“Sometimes, letting someone know the depth of your empathy by being there, by being a sympathetic sounding board for their emotions, is all that’s needed for that moment. Rather than worrying over the right words, what if we focused on sharing our time and compassion?
I know that my life was forever enriched by a stranger taking a few minutes to do just that. Whenever I think of the accident now, I remember less and less the violence of the experience, but the memory of a compassionate presence remains vivid and comforting. I can honestly say that thanks to how somebody helped me de-escalate from my distress, that for me, being in a hit and run was more of a positive experience than a negative one.