Emotional Triage

To illustrate blog on Emotional Triage Yellow Dot WomenMuch has been spoken and written about emotional first aid recently and, whilst it is a useful skill set, I want to take you back a step to emotional triage.  In a medical setting triage is used to determine the degree of severity of a wound or illness in order to plan the most appropriate and timely treatment.  The same is true with emotional triage.

Emotional wounds can stem from issues such as overload, loneliness, fear, rejection and failure.  At the moment, during this period of isolation, it is likely that you have experienced/are experiencing at least one of these issues.

Emotional triage requires awareness; awareness of the problem, of how you are feeling about it and what your current level of capability is for dealing with it.  You might find the following plan helpful – grab a notebook and jot your answers down.

  1. Ask yourself: What am I feeling?

It is important to be able to name an emotion, to recognise what you are feeling.  Sometimes it’s really difficult because you are feeling a complex mix of different emotions.  Try to tease them out – e.g. I am feeling a bit sad, very anxious, hurt and let down.  Sometimes, it is helpful to give a particular set of feelings a name so that you recognise it when it happens – Winston Churchill famously referred to his depressive state as “the black dog”, this was simply a short hand for the complex mix of emotions he felt at the time.

  1. Ask yourself: Why do I feel that way?

In psychological circles there is a great deal of debate about whether an emotion is a reflex which is followed by a thought or vice versa.  For example, if you came face to face with a tiger would you feel fear as a reflex or would you first go through a thought process about the tiger which then elicits fear as a response, not to the tiger, but to the fear.  This is important.

Are you feeling lonely because you are alone and on some level, in your mind, alone = lonely?  Or are you just feeling lonely but can’t really identify why?

Is your emotion a reasonable response to an event or occurrence?  Or perhaps you are looking around for a reason to explain the way you feel.

  1. Ask yourself: How long have I felt that way?

Is this a new feeling for you?  Or is it a familiar occurrence – an “old friend” like Churchill’s black dog?

Is this a fleeting feeling?  Has it lasted a few hours/days/weeks?  Can you ever remember feeling better than this?

  1. Ask yourself: How intense is this feeling?

Think of your emotion in terms of a pain score.  Rate your emotion from one to ten where one is “barely noticeable” and ten is “unbearable”.  These scores are somewhat arbitrary but will help you to monitor and understand your emotional state.

  1. Ask yourself: Can I make it better?

Have you handled this before?  What did you do then?  Can you do it again?

If this is new to you, is there information you can draw on which will help?

Do you feel utterly incapable of dealing with this alone?

The answers

diagram illustrating the idea of emotional triage

Depending on your answers you will need to do one of the following:

Rub it Better

If your emotional triage reveals a state which is the equivalent of banging your shin on the edge of a cupboard (i.e. it scores 1-4 on the “pain scale” but it was fleeting and I understand why I feel that way) then all you need to do is acknowledge it and rub it better.  Use whatever soothing activities work for you – a few minutes of deep breathing, a moment or two of space to gather your thoughts while you wait for the pain to ease.

Apply Emotional First Aid

When emotional triage reveals a state which won’t simply pass if you take a moment out, then you need to apply more significant first aid.  Apply your knowledge and experience, do some research, use your existing skills and stick on a plaster.

e.g. If you are feeling lonely, make contact with someone, if you are upset by someone’s words give them some calm feedback, if you are feeling overwhelmed, take a break and then prioritise.

Seek Help from a Friend

If your personal resources are low and you feel incapable of applying emotional first aid it’s time to acknowledge that problem.  It might be that emotional triage shows that the pain is too intense (5-8), that you have felt this way for too long and you are exhausted, maybe you have tried your usual strategies and they just aren’t working or perhaps you don’t understand your feelings and you don’t know what to do.

It is time to phone a friend.  Choose someone who is kind and patient, someone with a degree of empathy, someone who knows when to empathise and when to give you a metaphorical kick up backside!

Talking to someone you trust can help you to gain perspective, to see your emotions for what they are.  It can help you to formulate a plan – your friend might remember what helps you even if you can’t.

Seek Help from a Professional

If talking to a friend doesn’t help, or if you don’t have anyone in your life who will listen and understand then it’s time to talk to a professional.

If your emotions are high on the pain scale (6-10), if your usual strategies aren’t working and if your feelings aren’t dissipating, then it may be time to talk to a professional.

Depending on your situation that might be a doctor, a helpline, a charity specialising in your particular problem, a coach or a therapist.  A coach can help you to find the best approach for you and to identify ways in which you can help yourself.  A counsellor/therapist can keep you safe whilst you explore long term emotional issues and can help you to heal.

Please do seek help.  Doctors, charities, coaches and therapists are all still working (albeit differently) throughout the lockdown and they would want to offer you support if you are struggling at the moment.

During this period of lockdown Fiona is offering her coaching/counselling sessions via Zoom on a “pay what you can” basis.


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