Verbal first aid and the power of words: How verbally comforting a crisis victim positively alters their healing response

Tuesday, May 16, 2006 by: Dani Veracity
Tags: verbal first aid, mind-body medicine, placebo effect

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Imagine witnessing someone getting hit by a car. What would you do? Would you call 911? Would you stay by the victim until an ambulance arrived? Well, according to Professor Judith Simon Prager, what you say to a person in a crisis is just as important as what you do.

"How a person experiences an illness or injury is important to both the healing process and the person not developing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)," says Professor Prager, who travels worldwide training people in what she calls "verbal first aid." The technique she teaches takes "fight-or-flight" response into account and incorporates two systems largely ignored by mainstream medicine: The body's powerful self-healing system and its extremely influential belief system. Furthermore, this mind-body approach can make the difference between life and death for someone suffering from a major illness or injury.

Fight-or-flight response was essential during prehistoric times. Unfortunately, it does more harm than good in modern society because, in Professor Prager's words, it "makes you stupid." Though no one can doubt the power of intuition, fight-or-flight response does in fact hinder complex thought because it makes the blood nourishing the frontal brain go to the mid-brain. This mid-brain thinking is an altered state Professor Prager calls the "Healing Zone." This is a highly susceptible position in which the injured or ill person is unable to exercise personal judgment; therefore, the words others say around that person weigh heavily on his or her emotions and, because all emotions illicit a physical response, physical well-being.

This mind-body connection is core to verbal first aid. "Our thoughts give rise to physical manifestations," explains Professor Prager. The mind-body link is not just a theory, either, as studies show that words alone can influence automatic nervous system activities, such as heart rate and breathing rate. Furthermore, she cites two former medical "mysteries" -- doctor-induced illness and the placebo effect -- as proof that the mind-body connection exists.

Many of us have experienced some form of doctor-induced illness. For example, when a doctor says, "This medication may make you sick," most people will perceive some form of negative side effect. The placebo effect is a similar phenomenon, in which we feel what we believe we are supposed to feel. The fact that the placebo works as well or better than the tested pharmaceutical 33 percent of the time concerns some and mystifies others. It's certainly not information that Big Pharma would like you to think about, but nevertheless, it is the truth, so how can it be? Well, the body makes its own chemicals, Professor Prager reasons, so if you think a pill will help you, it often will, even if it's just a sugar pill masquerading as a pharmaceutical.

University of Kansas professor M. Eric Wright discovered verbal first aid in 1990, when he experimented with two groups of emergency medical technicians. The control group was told to continue normal emergency response procedure, but the other group was given a set of parameters to follow:

  1. Minimize extraneous input, such as witnesses' reactions.
  2. Say a specific paragraph that includes: "The worst is over...[Tell your body to preserve itself. Encourage healing and limited blood loss]... You're in a safe position. The worst is over."
  3. Don't talk too much about anything else.
After six months of following these parameters, the trained group's patients were admitted to the hospital from the emergency room less often, stayed a shorter time in the hospital and experienced a much lower mortality rate. In fact, the results were so positive that the control group repeatedly asked Professor Wright for training so that they could help their patients better.

Professor Prager has trained many health practitioners in the verbal first aid techniques discovered by Professor Wright and, like the trained EMTs in Professor Wright's study, Professor Prager's students see amazing results.

"I've used it in the field and it's helped a lot, especially with breathing problems," Sleepy Hollow Fire Department Ambulance Corp. Captain Mike Anzovino says of verbal first aid in his online testimonial. On the other hand, though health care and emergency professionals like Captain Anzovino are Professor Prager's usual students, knowledge of verbal first aid is important for anyone because you someday might be the only one there to help someone going through a medical crisis.

Fortunately, verbal first aid is extremely easy to learn and perform, as long as you remember the following principles:

  1. Center yourself in the present moment: The best gift you can give someone is your full attention. Remember that the situation at hand isn't about you; you're there to help someone else. Go to where the injured person is, both literally and figuratively, and you will eventually take him or her to safety. For example, if the person is pacing, pace along.
  2. Let the injured or ill person know that you understand him or her: Relay your sympathy and empathy. Be sure to never argue with a person's belief system while performing verbal healing. Find a way to take the person to a healing state within his or her belief system.
  3. Give verbal healing suggestions, including reassurance of safety: "The worst is over." "Breathe evenly with me." "You're in a safe place." If you'd like to recite a specific paragraph, you can find it in full in Professor Prager's book, The Worst is Over: What to Say When Every Moment Counts.
For more information on this book or Professor Prager's work in general, please visit her website. Whether you're an EMT, a nurse or just a concerned human being, what you say may mean everything to a person in a crisis.

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