How to Calm Someone in Distress
It is a valuable skill to be able to calm someone down when they are upset. Whether in the heat of anger during an argument, assisting family members or even someone experiencing a psychotic episode. All of these situations and many other scenarios benefit when someone understands how to calm someone while also remaining calm themselves. Skills in verbal de-escalation can be effective and potentially save someone’s life dependent on the severity of the situation and their individual emotional concerns.
Stages of Crisis
1) Anxiety. In this state the person is still holding onto some level of emotional control, but it may not hold out. They are escalating emotionally, tension is rising and often you can see physical signs such as sweating, pacing, changes in speech patterns and other signs that let observers know; this is a potentially dangerous situation. This is when you need to recognize their signs that they have been triggered, actively listen to understand them and ensure you are giving them space.
2) Defensive. It is pointless to argue with someone that is losing control of their emotions, you cannot forcefully calm someone, but you can ease them into it. When they become defensive you’ll notice they speak more irrationally, their voice tone raises, they may have a look of fear or anger on their face. During this stage try to reflect their feelings and demonstrate that you care. Make statements that bring up something they said to you, this shows them you are really listening. Such as “I understand you feel hurt about what happened with Mary last night” instead of “I understand you feel hurt”.
Gently set limits and try to provide positive, rational ideas. Such as, if they want to go fight someone, don’t yell NO in their face and tell them it is a stupid idea (unless you want to risk getting into a fight yourself) Instead speak in a level tone and suggest they go to the gym with you to use the boxing room or find another distraction that suits them.
3) Acting out. At this point, you must ensure your own safety and all around you. This is when they are demonstrating violence like throwing things or punching walls. STAY CALM. A person in this state seems to have super human strength and they don’t always realize what they are doing until it is done and they feel regret. Do not try to intimidate them or become escalated yourself, fire does not calm fire.
Maintain your calm and rational discussion; keep your words clear and concise. Give them space. Ask questions like “what can we do to fix this together” showing them that you want to help. You do not want to argue with them, but you also don’t want to agree with their irrational statements. Carefully pick a middle road and let them verbally vent.
4) Tension Reduced. You will notice when you have successfully calmed someone down. Their body loosens up, their voice lowers and they speak more rationally. Often in this stage, they might feel guilt for how they were behaving. This is the time to have a deeper conversation and really try to understand what they are struggling with. This is also the time to discuss their triggers as well as their own coping skills.
During these stages it is beneficial to remind them of their faith. We can help and strive to uplift people around us, but ultimately it is not our choice whether they will learn emotional self-control.
إِنَّ اللَّهَ لَا يُغَيِّرُ مَا بِقَوْمٍ حَتَّىٰ يُغَيِّرُوا مَا بِأَنفُسِهِمْ
Allah changeth not the condition of a folk/people until they (first) change that which is in their hearts
Encourage them to seek strength and guidance from Allah (the most revered, most high). Just one of many gems within Islam is the advocacy of self-control and discipline. We must not allow our nafs to control our behaviors and emotions ,yet as humans, times will come when we will struggle against them.
وَمَا أُبَرِّئُ نَفْسِي إِنَّ النَّفْسَ لَأَمَّارَةٌ بِالسُّوءِ إِلَّا مَا رَحِمَ رَبِّي إِنَّ رَبِّي غَفُورٌ رَّحِيمٌ
And I do not acquit myself. Indeed, the soul is a persistent enjoiner of evil, except those upon which my Lord has mercy. Indeed, my Lord is Forgiving and Merciful.”
Avoid Power Struggles in Communication
During all of these steps to calm someone, your controlled communication is key. We need to avoid power struggles with an escalated individual; they will only cause them to escalate quicker.
Remember who is the authority in the situation. The person losing control over their emotions is not the one in authority, you are. The moment you begin to yell at them and lose control of your own emotions, you have lost the upper hand in the situation. Having authority over a situation does not mean you should act like a boss, it means you are the one steering the event.
Keep your sentences short, try to speak in 10 or less words and keep it concise. Keep your words positive. When offering them positive alternatives (#2) keep those limited. You don’t want to rattle off 10 ideas for them to consider, instead give them 2 maybe 3 therapeutic options.
It takes two to argue, so stop. Sounds simple enough and it actually is. Make your statements in a clear, concise and calm manner. Allow them to think over what you have said and move on. Do not continue to debate them over a topic. You cannot win a power struggle with an angry person nor will they win.
Be creative! If you know them very well then you know what makes them laugh, what makes them smile and what they enjoy doing. Use this to your advantage. If you can make them laugh when they are on stage 1 or 2, you can typically prevent stage 3 and go right to tension reduction.
Not What you say, but how you say it
We know that communication is mostly paraverbal and body language. The words themselves only account for a small percentage of our communication while how we deliver those words has a greater impact. It should be noted this is not always 100%, but majority of the time it is not what we say, but how we say it. Doctor Jeff Thompson, who works with crisis and hostage negotiations, elaborates on this here.
Body Language. In Crisis Prevention and Intervention training, they have us stand across from the other individual and get into a supportive stance. Stand somewhat sideways facing them instead of squaring off with them. This gives them more personal space, it is not challenging nor threatening and it is safer for you as you can shuffle back quickly. While you are attempting to calm someone, ask them to sit if they are standing and sit next to them, do not stand over them.
Facial Expressions. Keep your face soft, avoid eye rolling and looking at them with irritation.
Personal Bubble. Give them ample space; never crowd someone that is agitated.
Speech. Be aware of your tone of voice, it should be supportive and calm not loud or upset. Keep it at a neutral pace not fast or slow. Speaking very slowly to someone makes them feel as if you are talking down to them instead of with them. Maintain a normal volume, do not talk over them. If you keep speaking calmly with kindness, you have a higher chance they will calm their own speech patterns.
وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا وَإِنَّ اللَّهَ لَمَعَ الْمُحْسِنِينَ
And those who strive for Us – We will surely guide them to Our ways. And indeed, Allah is with the doers of good.
The quicker you respond to your family member or friend’s escalated behavior, you increase the chances they will actually maintain their own self control. It is important to quickly recognize their signs of increased anxiety and step in as support. All behaviors have some type of meaning, generally with the aim to achieve a need. That need could be physical such as making money or it could be emotional such as finding the right person for marriage. Once we are able to identify the root, the need, it becomes easier to discuss positive routes to achieve that goal or ways to let it go.
Every struggle we face can be a blessing dependent on how we react to it and our perspective. In these escalated moments, we are given an opportunity to help someone in need and they are given the opportunity to find greater self-control and reflect upon their actions. When you find yourself in the situation to help another in distress and calm them, be grateful because Allah (the most revered, the most high) is answering their prayers through you.