How To Deal With People In Distress

By  | 

The idea of perception being more responsible for determining an outcome than the activating event is central to cognitive behavioral therapy. It certainly holds true for people in distress situations. In the vast majority of cases the activating event does not warrant the anxiety feelings generated or the resulting frantic behavior.

The usual responses to those in distress are either to add to the chaos by taking on that anxiety ridden state too or to immediately look for solutions to the problem. Most competent mental health professionals know that neither of these responses do much for the person in the distress situation though.

A better solution is to quickly assess the real threat level and if, as is true in the vast majority of cases, feelings and behavior are exaggerated, to remain calm and act as a sounding board without trying to offer advice or solutions, at least not at first.

Reason and rationality go out the window when anxiety passes a certain threshold, which is probably why a well-reasoned, rational point of view is likely to fall upon deaf ears. But a calming presence, on the other hand, is experiential proof rather than theoretical proof that the current felt state is out of whack with the situation that caused it.

When you give people a chance to talk it out in a calm space they usually come to the conclusion on their own that things aren’t as bad as they thought, that they’re not currently in an emergency situation and that the intensity of their anxiety is unwarranted. This is infinitely more helpful in the long-term than simply providing them with a solution since the solution neglects whether or not their perceptions are in line with the majority of activating events in their lives.