A Manner of Speaking--
Therapeutic Suggestion and Verbal First Aid
I sit down with you across a table. I tell you about my vacation in Argentina. I begin with a journey across the pampas, describing the endless fields of grass, a parting sea of sepia between the hooves of horses, tumbling and tearing up the dry soil as we gallop towards the mountains in the distance. I tell you about the cold water we drink as we come up to a mountain stream leading to a cave and the strain in our muscles as we get off the horses. You are with me as we swing our flashlights up to see the top of the cave, 50 feet up, and the thousands of bats sleeping quietly there.
Every conversation is based on the power of suggestion. I tell you about my journey so that you can experience it with me. I share my joys and sorrows with you so you can feel what I feel.
What I say changes how you feel. What you say changes how I feel. It is the purpose of language, is it not? To convey with words a feeling, a point of view, a change of perspective.
And just as words can take you around the world-through pampas or down the Seine-to enjoyment, words can bring you pain.
We all know this instinctively: a harsh word is heard as a "knife through the heart," a frightening word, a "kick in the gut," and a kind word, a "ray of sunlight on my face." As adults we have been conditioned to deny and modify the way our bodies respond. Children have not yet acquired those defenses and the effects of our words are readily apparent in their faces and their postures.
Words Help, Words Harm
Stress, which many experts now define as the effect of any strong emotion (fear, anger, pain, sadness), has very clear physiological effects on our bodies. Our emotional and mental states affect our neuro-endocrine systems, our immune systems, even our reproductive systems.
Alice Domar, Ph.D., a researcher at Harvard Medical School recently conducted a study that showed the positive effects of stress-reduction on women who were trying to get pregnant. She contended that psychological distress can have effects on multiple systems: inhibition of hypothalamic GnRH, activation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and alterations of the immune system. Adrenaline is a by-product of many forms of stress. And while adrenaline helps us to prepare for emergency action, the chemical cascade it initiates inhibits our ability to repair ourselves, to digest food properly, or to reproduce. Epinephrine (one of the secretions of the adrenal glands) has been shown to constrict blood vessels. When this occurs in the uterus, it interferes with conception.
Domar also took a long, hard look at a 10-week mind/body workshop she created that included relaxation, yoga, imagery and cognitive restructuring. By changing the negative thoughts ("I'll never have a baby") to positive thoughts ("I'm doing everything I can to get pregnant"), they were able to change the body's response. The data speak for themselves: Fifty-five percent of the women in the experimental group (those who used relaxation, yoga, imagery, and cognitive restructuring) got pregnant, in contrast with only twenty percent of women in a control group.
What we say to ourselves is as important as what we say to others. Equally important is how we say it.
Verbal First Aid: The Language of Healing
What we say can do more than change a frown to a smile-it can generate a cascade of chemicals that can turn off pain, reduce inflammation, or help stop bleeding.
A young lady I know cut herself terribly and was bleeding profusely. When I got there, she was already holding a compress to the wound, but she was clearly very unnerved as was everyone else around her. The bleeding was indeed copious. I took her aside and spoke to her firmly, calmly, lovingly. "I'm here. I'm going to help you. Will you do what I say?" She nodded, instantly and visibly soothed, the tension draining from her face. I told her a story of another young girl who had been hurt and had stopped the bleeding all by herself and suggested to her that she, too, could stop the bleeding. Within a few minutes, she was able to stop the bleeding so that by the time she arrived at the doctor's for treatment, truly the worst was over.
I used very simple techniques that are presented in detail in The Worst Is Over-What To Say When Every Moment Counts. First and foremost, I "paced" her, which means that I matched her behavioral and emotional state by being present with her, in her discomfort and her fear. I didn't rush in to "cheer her up" or dismiss her pain. But I did it with the calm, sure-footed authority that someone is willing to be guided by. Then, with that rapport, I "led" her to stop the bleeding. In that moment, I was able to speak directly with her body and offer the therapeutic suggestions she needed to begin the healing.
Altered States-Portals to the Healing Zone
When we are frightened, shocked, confused, hurt, worried, wounded, we go into what clinicians call "altered states" in which we "dissociate" slightly (or in some cases, a great deal) from our environments. In these moments, we are highly focused, most often on some internal process, which changes the way we see ourselves and the world. It may not last longer than a few moments. It may last years. Some studies have suggested that symptoms of dissociation have been found in up to 96% of those who were exposed to high levels of stress. (1) Other studies have suggested that even those witnessing a traumatic event showed marked alterations in consciousness. (2) We have found that people in those states-whether they occur when your boss walks into your office with an angry look on her face, or you've been in a car accident-are highly sensitive to what is being said to them and what is going on around them. When people are scared, we look for a benevolent authority to tell us what to do, how to find safety. It is instinctive to all social animals. What we do and say in those moments is particularly important. Do we use those sensitive moments thoughtlessly, fanning the flames of anxiety or do we serve as a guiding light to lead someone to emotional and physical safety. With Verbal First Aid, the choice and the task are easy.
Verbal First Aid helps you know what to say when you need it most, when every moment and every word counts. Although it was initially created to help emergency medical and rescue personnel to do precisely the sort of thing I did with that frightened, young girl, anyone can use it anywhere. Wherever there is a human emotion or a vulnerable moment, Verbal First Aid can help.
1. Peritraumatic Dissociation: Symptoms of Dissociation in Humans Experiencing Acute, Uncontrollable Stress.by Morgan, CA III, et al. in American Journal of Psychiatry, 2001.
2)Trauma and Dissociation by Classen, C, Koopman and Spiegel, The Bull Menninger Clinic, 1993 "Stress associated with experiencing or witnessing physical trauma can cause abrupt and marked alterations in mental state...people who experience a series of traumatic events may be especially vulnerable to a variety of dissociate states, including amnesia, fugue, depersonalization and multiple personality disorders."
Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico.
She is the author of The Next Osama (2010), co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (more...)