Healthy Tahoe: Helping loved ones process critical incident stress
As our nation faces the impacts of coronavirus COVID-19, it’s likely that we all have a loved one who is involved in an ongoing emotionally-charged event, known as a critical incident.
Whether a healthcare worker, a grocery store employee, or someone who has been furloughed from work, there are people all around us experiencing individual responses that are common to critical incident stress. This global pandemic offers many opportunities to support each other as we cope.
Symptoms of critical incident stress can be physical, such as insomnia, exhaustion, change of appetite, or headaches; or expressed through emotional and behavioral indicators like fear, anxiety, withdrawal, or scapegoating. It’s okay to tell a loved one that you’re noticing certain behavior and ask if they’d like to talk about it or need help.
Your loved one may experience critical incident stress at any time. These responses can occur at the time of the incident, and can be prolonged and insidious. Your loved one may experience a variety of signs or symptoms of a stress response, just as he or she may not experience any of the reactions at this time.
Suffering from the effects of critical incident stress is completely normal. The symptoms will normally subside, however, in a pervasive and prolonged event, they will not disappear soon, and it is important to help your loved one to not dwell upon them. The impact of critical incident stress can be intensified or lessened by our own personal, family, and current developmental issues.
Encourage but do not pressure your loved one to talk about the incident and his or her reaction to it. Talk is the best medicine. Your primary “job” is to listen and reassure this person. Remember that if an event is upsetting to you and your spouse, your children may also be affected and need to talk, too.
Don’t be afraid to ask what you can do that someone close to you would consider helpful. Your loved one is attempting to gain control in their life. Maintain normalcy within the boundaries of social distancing and try to be flexible. If the signs of stress your loved one is experiencing intensify, consider seeking further assistance. The Disaster Distress Helpline offers free support by calling 800-985-5990, or texting TalkWithUs to 66746, for help in English or Spanish.
As you notice family members and friends undergo critical incident stress, it’s a time to listen carefully and seek to understand. Offer your assistance and a listening ear even if they have not asked for help. Reassure them that they are safe. Don’t tell them that they are “lucky because they are not in Italy or China.” People are not consoled by those statements. Instead, tell them that you want to understand and assist them. Help loved ones in the household with everyday tasks like cleaning, cooking, caring for the family, minding children and pets, and give them some private time. Don’t take their anger or other feelings personally.
The State of California’s shelter in place declaration offers an opportunity to connect with loved ones, in the home or virtually. In this unprecedented time of uncertainty, reaching out to let friends and family know that you care about them and are there to listen can make a difference.
Tami Burns, RN, NBC-HWC, is a Registered Nurse at Barton Family Medicine and Barton Medical Clinic. She is a member of the COVID-19 Bioethics Committee as well as Barton’s Crisis Intervention Team supporting healthcare workers in the local response to the coronavirus.
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