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After the Emergency—Helping Rescuers and Witnesses Cope

The main focus of emergency care is, of course, what to do in a medical emergency. But what happens for that brave Good Samaritan after the event? Or how about for those bystanders who witness the drama of a rescue effort, especially for those all-too-frequent efforts that ultimately don’t succeed?

It’s certainly stressful stuff. Just watching drivers act aggressively on a busy road can get everyone’s heart pounding, let alone when we see someone collapse and others trying to intervene before the reassuring presence of an EMS responder arrives. This is especially true when that event is contextualized in a broader emergency like a violent accident.

Let’s look today at some post-traumatic event coping skills for both the rescuer and the witnesses, with a special emphasis on children and youngsters.

Aftercare for the Good Samaritan

If anyone ever deserved a nice day at the beach or spa, it’s that confident bystander who springs to action to help someone in need. We hope all our Good Samaritans will treat themselves with great kindness after the stress of a rescue attempt, but even if you can’t afford to give yourself that luxurious reward we think you have absolutely earned, here are some things to keep in mind as you process your experience:

Remember, caring for someone in an emergency can create emotional distress. More serious problems or relationships with those involved can intensify these feelings. Common reactions include anxiety, trembling or shaking, sweating, nausea, fast breathing, and pounding heartbeat.

This is a normal human reaction to a traumatic event. Simply remember to stay calm and accept your limitations as a provider.

When an emergency is over, a provider is often left alone while an ill or injured person is transported away by EMS. With little time for closure, a provider can begin to experience a variety of reactions. These include feeling abandoned or helpless, recalling the event over and over, self-doubt about not doing enough, difficulty concentrating, heaviness in the chest, upset stomach or diarrhea, and difficulty sleeping or nightmares.

It is important to understand that these feelings are normal and should pass with time. However, there are actions you can take to help cope with and work through the difficulty. Informally speak to someone you trust to listen without judgment, such as a family member, friend, or coworker. Get back to a normal routine as soon as possible. Accept that it will take time to resolve these emotions.

If unpleasant feelings persist, formal assistance from a professional counselor may be helpful as you work through your emotions about the event.

Take the time to be good to yourself. Never forgot you have just done a brave and wonderful thing.

Coping after witnessing an emergency

Shepell-fgi, a Canadian-based organization that works with businesses seeking to provide personal and family assistance programs to their employees, offers advice for those who have witnessed a traumatic event, which they define as:

“…one that falls outside the confines of a normal day-today experience. It is an event that is threatening to our own lives or welfare; or it is one that is threatening to the welfare or life of a friend or loved one.”

They remind us that, unlike trained fire and police personnel, most of us aren’t necessarily prepared to witness and process an emergency unfolding before our eyes.

“More often than not, the initial response to a traumatic event is a feeling of numbness. After that, reactions may include sleep problems and changes in eating habits. Some people even experience situational amnesia – they don’t remember what happened. Emotional reactions such as depression, anxiety and agitation are common. A startled response when encountering something that reminds the person of the incident is another typical response.”

If you are having trouble putting an emergency event behind you, consider some of these suggestions:

Talk about the critical incident with family and friends.
Get adequate rest, eat a balanced diet, and engage in light physical exercise such as walking for fifteen minutes to half an hour each day. Coping with emotional problems is a little easier when we are in good physical health.
Realize that the unpleasant symptoms…are normal and that others have experienced them.
Helping children cope

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has created a downloadable PDF entitled Tips for Talking With and Helping Children and Youth Cope After a Disaster or Traumatic Event: A Guide for Parents, Caregivers, and Others:

“Children and youth can face emotional strains after a traumatic event such as a car crash or violence. Disasters also may leave them with long-lasting harmful effects. When children experience a trauma, watch it on TV, or overhear others discussing it, they can feel scared, confused, or anxious. Young people react to trauma differently than adults. Some may react right away; others may show signs that they are having a difficult time much later. As such, adults do not always know when a child needs help coping. This tip sheet will help parents, caregivers, and teachers learn some common reactions, respond in a helpful way, and know when to seek support.”

The document looks at possible reactions to trauma and useful talking points to call on, all categorized within age groups. It also provides resources for additional help.

Dramatic events, whether they impact us directly or we simply witness them, leave powerful impressions deep within us. Recognizing and acknowledging those events is key to any processing or working through that we might need to do, and help is available.