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Strategies for Supporting Others During Difficult Times

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The most important job of the brain is to protect us from danger and ensure our survival.

When we experience a crisis, the brain’s alarm’s system gets turned on to prepare our bodies to respond to the threatening situation. When that happens, the rational/thinking part of our brain – the prefrontal cortex – partially shuts down to allow our survival instincts to take over. During this time, our emotions and physical reactions are heightened, and our cognitive processes are overridden.

In other words, a crisis changes the way our brain works.

Of course, we don’t all respond to a crisis in the same way. This is likely due to differences in temperament, habits, experiences, training and long-held beliefs and practices. Because the rational part of our brain is not as active during a crisis or intense stress, it’s a lot more difficult to think flexibly or to change our unhelpful beliefs about ourselves, others and the world.

Another important consideration to keep in mind is that not all crises are the same or will produce the same reaction or response. The higher the level of uncertainty, unpredictability, fear and helplessness, the stronger the emotional reaction and the more challenging it will likely be to re-establish homeostasis.

So, what can we do to help a friend or a loved one who is experiencing a crisis or intense stress?

Start by checking-in with yourself

“Get yourself sorted before you help others.” Destin Sandlin, NASA Researcher

If you’ve ever been on an airplane, you’ve probably heard the pre-flight safety spiel that instructs you to put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others:

“If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”

This an important analogy to keep in mind when we’re thinking about offering support to someone in need. In our efforts to look after someone, we often get carried away and forget about our own needs and issues. So, before you try to help someone you love, always check in with yourself and assess your present state of being (physical, mental and emotional).

Remember that it’s not your job or duty to put the needs of others before yours. Taking care of others can take a lot of effort and energy so make sure that your reservoir is full and has enough to give.

Practice self-care as a way of preventing caregiver burnout. Self-care is not only about doing nice things for yourself, but also about deeply listening to your own voice and giving yourself the time and space that you need to replenish your energy.

 

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We don’t all respond to a crisis in the same way.

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Stronger Minds content is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to establish a standard of care with a reader, you should always seek the advice of your mental health professional, physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call emergency services immediately. You should never disregard or delay seeking medical advice relating to treatment or standard of care because of information contained herein. Medical information changes constantly. Therefore the information herein should not be considered current, complete or exhaustive, nor should you rely on such information to recommend a course of treatment for you or any other individual. Reliance on any information provided herein is solely at your own risk.