How to Take Control During A Personal Crisis

Uncategorized Apr 25, 2019

We have all felt the anxiety hearing the replays of crucial 911 calls. We can identify with the caller in these touch and go moments. And we have heard calls sometimes where the operator doesn’t seem to “get it,” that something really frightening is happening for the person. At other times, they get it but don’t seem very caring about the person as they bark out orders in a scary tone. It’s like they have worked too many shifts and are either disengaged or frustrated.

Then you hear the good one, and it instantly feels different. You feel better for the caller and somehow even begin to have hope that something good is going to happen, a better outcome than the person is expecting. It feels like they are in “good hands.” You think, “If I ever call 911 I want that person to answer.”

So, what is the difference? What makes a good crisis operator? Are there certain ingredients that are common to the good ones, elements that we can even use in our own lives? Yes, there are.

There are specific reasons that you feel better listening to some operators (and friends for that matter) when you are afraid and in a crisis, and need help. And the principles involved are learnable.

When we are in a crisis and need help, our brains have instantly changed. When we are under threat, our higher brain’s ability to think clearly, make judgments, find solutions, solve problems, and calm down is being interrupted by a bath of stress hormones that take us to a “fight or flight” mode. We get anxious, and can be more prone to reacting than thinking.

At that moment, a 911 operator needs the frightened caller to make a very quick transformation to their higher brain, which can mean the difference between life and death, either for themselves or others. The operator needs to help the person transform from the frightened, reactive brain to the thinking brain that is able to use all of it faculties and become a problem-solving partner. Not easy to do in a period of seconds, but doable nevertheless if you know the ingredients to bring to a frightened conversation.

Basically, there are three elements that can help transform the brain from one state to another: Connection, tone, and structure. The caller needs to know “someone is here with me (connection), they are for me and are on my side (tone), and they are in control (structure).

When we are afraid, the first thing that calms the brain down and reduces stress is a feeling of connection which assures us that we are not alone. Instantly, stress hormones such as cortisol are reduced and we are on our way back to thinking. So, the operator or friend should first let the person know they are with them. “Ok, don’t worry. I hear you. I am with you and am going to stay here with you and help you.” It does not have to be said in these exact words, but there has to be a feeling for the person that they are no longer alone in the crisis.

Next, the tone must show care, calm, and firmness. If the operator sounds angry, agitated, or wishy-washy, the caller can have a response of becoming more anxious and increased stress, and have access to less ability to think well and have clear decision making.

Third, if the operator can take control in some way and also give directives, that kind of structure can calm someone down as well. “Ok, listen. I need you to tell me exactly where you are.” Or, “Don’t move. Stay where you are. We are coming.” Or whatever is appropriate, but show control. The caller is obviously in a situation where they feel out of control of the source of danger, and for them to feel like someone is strong and going to take charge will be helpful. The trick is to do that while maintaining a positive and non-agitated tone as we said above.

One of the most important issues in that moment is that the operator needs information and sometimes decisions and actions from the caller. In order to give that information or do provide needed decisions, a caller needs to be able to think. How a operator handles the call can certainly help them to think more clearly. Connect, support, and take charge.

Need a safe place to relate to others about this topic? Join one of Dr. Henry Cloud's Boundaries Peer Groups. 

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