Verbal First Aid as an Antidote to Viral Fear
It was early 2001 when we wrote our first book on Verbal First Aid (The Worst is Over: What to Say When Every Moment Counts). Since then, we’ve had 9/11, The Patriot Act, Guantanamo Bay, yellow, orange, and red-alerts, the stock market crash and the unprecedented bailouts of multi-billionaires.
Now in 2009 and 2010, we are being terrorized with the H1N1 epidemic and the threatened choice between vaccination and quarantine. It has been 9 years of mounting political tensions, cascading failures in the old boy network and a broken economic system, and a massive campaign of viral fear with an expectably increasing sense of panic.
Verbal First Aid is like the emergency kit most of us pack into our cars or have under our sinks at home. We know we really ought to have it well-stocked and be properly versed in its usage, but we loathe the idea of actually needing it.
Well, we need it now.
Because the single most potent antidote to Viral Fear and the The Next Osama syndrome can be as simple as a change in our thinking. And what we say to ourselves determines not only how we think, but how we feel and heal. That is Verbal First Aid.
Originally designed as a protocol for first responders and emergency medical personnel, Verbal First Aid has become much more than that. What we have found by teaching people how to use words to facilitate self-healing in others is that we are also giving them tools to change the way they heal themselves.
What we say can do more than change how we feel emotionally, although it can certainly do that. Unfortunately, most crises are handled without much consideration of the impact of words. If a person is bleeding, we bandage the wound, but we don’t address the fear. If a person’s feelings are “hurt,” we tell them to “get over it” and get back to work. The research abounds with examples of how words can generate a cascade of chemicals that can turn off pain, reduce inflammation, or help stop bleeding. And the quicker we do that, the quicker the healing can begin.
This is the core principle of Verbal First Aid: What we say at the scene of a medical emergency or emotional crisis is as important as what we do.
The same is true of what we say to ourselves. And what we allow ourselves to believe.
When advertisers, particularly insurance companies and pharmaceutical giants sell to us, they are using what hypnotherapists call “suggestion.” They may not literally tell us to be afraid (although I have seen ads that do), but they suggest that there’s good reason to be afraid, that if we don’t buy X or do Y or see Z, we could get sick, be left out, or lose everything we own.
When they say these things to us (and often they use very clever ways of saying and showing it) we are not just hearing their words. We see them as images in our minds and we respond both physically and emotionally immediately unless we have a way of countering the suggestions.
And that way entails a profound change in our core thinking.
America is driven by many things. Not that long ago, it was axiomatic that sex sells. But that has changed. More than almost anything else (except fear) it is driven by ambition. Under that rubric I include greed and power. It is the flipside to being such a courageous, inventive and heroic nation.
Our desires are so great, we outpace our own abilities to both produce and consume. Our economy and our cultural activities are built squarely on that foundation, and in order for growth to continue, our desires and capricious appetites (which we are convinced are real needs) must likewise continue to grow.
We must be convinced that we have to have that new car even though our “old” one is only 3 years old and perfectly functional.
We must be motivated to buy that new high-definition TV even though it will mean digging ourselves into a hole of debt so deep we’ll have to work two jobs and have no time to watch it.
We must be made to believe that buying a new dress will make us more lovable, more appealing and more desirable even though we have done nothing to change the way we treat others.
We must be reassured that a painful, dangerous surgery will give us relief from the self-loathing that is our most gruesome secret, even though all we will get out of it is a face that can no longer smile.
This is the core belief system on which Viral Fear is based: That we need things.
We stand on line for hours, perhaps days in cold, wet weather waiting for the newest release of a video game. We fight one another to be the first in line for incredibly ugly-looking dolls at Christmas time and pay a premium for the privilege. We spend money most of us don’t have on salves, scents, pills and potions to make us appear young, give us longer-lasting erections at 70 years of age and pretend we can ward off the inevitable.
Why? Because we’re afraid. But of what are we so afraid? No matter how much money they have, no matter how cleverly they insinuate their suggestions into our collective consciousness, advertisers can only make us as afraid as we’re willing to be. Their suggestions take hold because they resonate with us.
In a country of greater comfort and security than any other in recorded history, we’re thoroughly afraid of everything: of being alone, of being intimate, of being too skinny, of being too fat, of being too young, of being too old, of having too little, of having too much, of changing too fast and of being too still. We’re afraid of being alive and we’re terrified of dying. The irony – and the point on which this all pivots – is that our fears are precisely commensurate with the distortion in our perceived needs. The more we feel we need, the more afraid we are of not having it, being it or doing it. The more afraid we are, the more we need. And so it goes. The market depends on it.
Verbal First Aid to the Rescue
Releasing ourselves from the trance of Viral Fear requires two simple things:
1. An awareness that we are in trance.
2. A willingness to see things differently, to think differently.
A while back I met a man at a large event in Albuquerque. After showing me the bracelet he was wearing around his ankle because of a DWI, he started complaining about the fact that he was being mandated to go to A.A. meetings.
“They’re all a bunch of zombies. They all say the same things. It’s like being brainwashed.”
I looked at him, partly amused and partly saddened. “And you think you’re not already brainwashed?”
He stood quietly so I continued.
“So, all the drinking you did, all the trouble you got into because of it, that was because you had such a clear sense of self? Your beliefs about alcohol were never influenced by television or your family? You were never moved by the ads that showed beautiful women falling all over the guy with the Dos Equis, right?”
I thought for a moment that he was going to throw his soda at me. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders and said, “I never thought of it that way.”
I think for him that was the beginning of the end of his trance and, hopefully, the end of the hold that Viral Fear had on his soul.
When the market tells us to be afraid, we need to have an answer at the ready.
Casting Out Fear
There is a remedy for fear. We heard in the Sermon on the Mount: “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them…And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit to his span of life?”
The remedy, the antidote to Viral Fear and generalized anxiety is faith–faith that there is a God and there is more to the universe than we can see, faith that things will work out, faith that we will have enough, faith that we can take care of ourselves, and faith that this life is only one small piece of a very large picture.
We have to begin a full-throttled reversal of the value system that has America in a choke-hold. We’ve got to let go of our stuff and our need for more. We have to come to grips with the fact that, no matter what the insurance companies imply, we are not going to live forever and things in this mortal coil will never be utterly secure.
In one way or another we are commanded over and over and over again to “fear not” and trust God. Fear and faith seem unable to co-exist, incapable of being released in the same breath.
Yet, we know that fear is a reasonable response to certain situations. How can we be told not to be afraid when we’re such fragile, needy beings in a fallen world and even the greatest of us have succumbed? How can we tell ourselves the same and believe it?
From my point of view, not all fear is the same. There is the fear that furthers our survival, like stepping out of the way of an oncoming train. Then there is the fear that is futile. The latter is a threat of monumental proportions in our culture. It is pathological, pervasive and addictive. It keeps us from doing that which we need to do to survive (or to thrive) and enables us to justify that which we ought never to do. It undermines faith and corrupts our thinking.
In Verbal First Aid we start by telling ourselves some simple truths.
We don’t need everything they tell us we do. The new phone, the new TV, the new outfit and the new breasts are all fine if you want them and can afford them. Knock yourself out. But you don’t need them. And they won’t make you feel any better about yourself. Ever. No matter what.
Not everything or everyone is out to get us. (They don’t have the time or inclination. Really, we’re not that important.) Some threats are real. Some aren’t. Get informed so you can tell the difference.
Not every storm will hit our shores and, if by some chance it does, we have what it takes to weather it. We’ve all been in storms before. They blow hard and then they blow away.
Not every boo-boo will become a pus-oozing ulcer. As you must have noticed when you were quite young, boo-boos get better all by themselves.
Not every germ means the death of us and we don’t have to pop pills for every sniffle. We have immune systems. That’s what they’re for.
Not every sales pitch means we have to buy.
That’s what Verbal First Aid is for.