Giving Your Child Real, Life-long Survival Skills: Verbal First Aid

Posted on July 14, 2010. Filed under: Everything Else | Tags: |


The Magic of Mental Mastery

By Judith Acosta

Part 1 in a 2-Part Series

According to military advisors, survival is a matter of thinking. It’s not just a positive “attitude.” It’s precisely what we say to ourselves that can make the difference between health and illness, life and death.

One true story demonstrates just how much our minds matter:

Lt. Costello (Name and location changed) sat behind a large, conspicuously clean desk at a small Westchester, NY police station. He was cool, composed, and seemed as uncluttered mentally as he was physically. The awards on his book cases and certificates on the wall attested to a long, successful career. “I paid my dues,” he smiled as he scanned the room and the work it all represented. As he saw it, however, his career really started in Vietnam when he was only a teenager serving in the U.S. Army. It was there, assigned to an armored car division sent deep into the jungle, that he learned what it took to survive physically, mentally, and emotionally.

He was on a mission in the Delta, it was summer and the temperature outside had reached upwards of 115 degrees before noon. Inside the tank it was at best unbearable under normal conditions. On one particular day he still remembers with stunning clarity, it was life-threatening.

“It must have been 130 or more inside. It was hot in a way I had never experienced before. I couldn’t stop sweating, couldn’t drink enough, couldn’t just get up and go to the bathroom. I was burning up. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I was literally burning up and I had to lower my body temperature somehow or I was going to die.

“Funny how it didn’t scare me. It was just as clear to me as the coffee in front of me now. It was a fact. I had no air conditioning. I couldn’t get out of the tank. There was nowhere to go except a POW camp, if I was lucky enough to get caught and not killed right away. I remember thinking that I should have been panicking. Instead, I was utterly, crystal clear. It was in the space of such a small moment that I realized it was completely up to me. Whether I survived or not was between me and my own mind.” The lieutenant sat forward, his body compressed with the intensity of the experience, still vivid in him.

“For some reason, I remembered something about monks in the Himalayas going outside in sub-zero temperatures to meditate without getting frostbite. They raised their own thermostats. And I figured if they could do it that way, I could lower it. To this day I don’t know exactly what I did or how I did it, but I imagined cool water inside me and around me, like I was dunking myself into a cooler filled with ice or skinny dipping in the lake back home. And hell if it didn’t work. I’m here. I never forgot that,” he sat back. “This,” he pointed to his head, “was my greatest weapon of all. And it has served me ever since, no matter what or where the battle.”

The good news for parents is that those survival skills may be learned in early childhood and can be taught with a very simple protocol. Anyone, anywhere can help children utilize their own minds to stay calm and change their biochemistry.

The Magical Mental Abilities of Children

Children have an even more extraordinary capacity for mental mastery–when they are shown how to do it. Compared to adults, they have superior imaginative abilities, are more naturally dissociative or internally focused, and are far more likely to suspend disbelief. Unlike adults, they have not learned how to dismiss “possibilities” as unrealistic.

I know of one young person, who, despite life-threatening injuries, recovered because she kept calm and saw herself as being bathed in Angel Light. She was not in denial. She knew the situation was grave. She saw her parents fret and weep outside her hospital room door, thinking she couldn’t see or hear them. But she assured them, “The Angel’s light is moving through me. It’s going to be okay.”

Another woman whose child was receiving chemotherapy, told her repeatedly that the medicine was “pure love and it will fill you like happiness fills a room.” They put signs all over the room and on the IV bags: “Love.” She went into remission.

What happens when we change our thoughts? We change our chemistry. What we feel determines how we heal.

Best-selling author, Dr. Larry Dossey, has written, “Images create bodily changes–just as if the experience were really happening. For example, if you imagine yourself lying on a beach in the sun, you become relaxed, your peripheral blood vessels dilate, and your hands become warm, as in the real thing.”

If this is even partially true, it is an astonishing statement.

The case to definitively establish the link between mind and body was opened almost 1,500 years ago when Hippocrates wrote that a person might yet recover from his or her belief in the goodness of the physician. It was continued in 1912 when one doctor reported that tuberculosis patients who had previously been on the mend, when given bad news (e.g., that a relative had passed away) took sudden turns for the worse and died. And today the data supporting the connection between thoughts and health, indeed between mental images and survival, are mounting.

Brain scans have shown that when we imagine an event, our thoughts “light up” the areas of the brain that are triggered during the actual event. Sports psychologists conducted one study in which skiers were wired to EMG machines and monitored for electrical impulses sent to the muscles as they mentally rehearsed their downhill runs. The skiers’ brains sent the same instructions to their bodies whether they were doing a jump or just thinking about it.

What does this mean for a child who’s just fallen off a swing or burned himself on a hot stove or woken from a nightmare in terror?

Verbal First Aid in Real Life

Asthma is unfortunately more and more common in children around the world. And though we are fortunate enough to have inhalers in emergencies, there are times we find ourselves on our own. The following is a typical situation handled with Verbal First Aid so that a crisis is handled and a life is saved.

Sam and his son, Jared, went to play in the park. Sam was sure Jared had packed his inhaler. Jared was sure his dad had packed it. When they had played about a half-hour, Jared was straining for breath. When they realized they’d forgotten it, Sam was smart enough to take a deep breath himself so that when he turned to his son he was calm, focused, and sure-footed.

Sam:Jared, I can see you’re breathing but that it’s a little tight?

Jared:(Nods, but can’t speak.)

Sam:Sit with me here and lean forward like this. Put your head forward like this so your bronchial tubes can open and smooth out. [At this point, Sam’s voice drops in pitch and slows down so that it’s soothing and controlled. He “paces” his son’s breath with his own, carefully so as not to hyperventilate, just enough so that there is a joint rhythm. As he speaks to his son, his breathing slows down just a little bit at a time, “leading”  his son back to normal breathing.) And as you do, you can remember very clearly how your inhaler feels when you take a puff on it, a little cool, a little tingly and how it opens you up pretty quickly, you can remember how it  feels when it’s working “a little more open now” a little more open, a little cooler, until you can get a really good deep, slow, even breath”.

With his father’s steady guidance and well-chosen imagery, Jared’s breathing returned to a more normal rate and they were able to get home safely. Even more than averting a respiratory catastrophe, Jared came away from the experience with a body memory, a knowing that he could change the way he thought, felt, and healed. Although the crisis lasted a few minutes, that learning would last a lifetime.

This article will be continued with another demonstration tomorrow.

Author’s Website:

Author’s Bio: Judith Acosta is a licensed psychotherapist, author, and speaker. She is also a classical homeopath based in New Mexico. She is the co-author of The Worst is Over (2002), the newly released Verbal First Aid (Penguin, 2010) and the author of numerous articles on mental health and cultural issues. She specializes in the treatment of trauma, anxiety, and grief, working with people all over the country. She has her practice in New Mexico with her canine therapeutic assistants. She has worked with trauma, anxiety and fear in patients for twenty five years. She has watched it, felt it, wrote about it, and helped heal people from it. As a result, she has learned a few things about fear, particularly that growing epidemic she calls VIRAL FEAR.

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