Here is your Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance Foundation,
reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic
loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and
copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family
Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., www.fafonline.org.
Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation. If the formatting of
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Fight/Flight or Tend and Befriend?
Creating A Healing Environment for Crisis Response
“During the telephonic role-plays in our annual emergency response
exercise, I was so humiliated in front of my peers that I cried.”
– An executive who took role-play calls during an emergency training exercise.
WW 31, April 12, 2017
In the last Wednesday Wisdom, we discussed the value of exercising the
humanitarian side of plans for airports, seaports, and stations. In the past, much of
the training for interacting with the public in a crisis was left to the individual airlines
and transportation companies. However, over the past decade, the shootings and
terrorist attacks around the world have caused many other groups to become
proactive in training and preparing their own teams for humanitarian response.
We encourage those planning exercises to include a wide range of interactions with
actors playing the part of survivors. Those who deal with customer service
complaints daily have plenty of experience with angry people when normal
operations are disrupted. But when trauma occurs, and a customer’s autonomic
nervous system is activated, there is nothing normal about the interactions
between employees and the public. During the shock phase of trauma, survivors
are dependent on anyone who can help them. Employees who are trained on
what to expect and how to offer an empathic, compassionate response, can work
together as a team, restoring a sense of control for all involved.
When people are overwhelmed with fear of death, bodily harm or fear for the
safety of a loved one, the survival hormone, adrenaline is released when the
fight/flight drive kicks in. In a situation where fighting or trying to flee is not
possible, the freeze response may also occur. While this may be a challenge to
EMS responders during the rescue phase of a crisis, customer service agents
do not usually deal with freeze behavior at an airport or station.
“We have a bond that will never be broken.”
-Mother of a young man killed in an airline accident, speaking about the Care
Team employees who assisted her and her family
The above quote is an example of the type of response that we see with survivors
who are treated with service that company employees offer today due to having
proper training. While most employees know about the flight/fight response,
there is a need to train employees on another drive which is activated when the
survivor feels gratitude toward the employees. This response is called “tend and
befriend” and happens instantaneously when someone is dealt with
compassionately during the shock phase of trauma. When this drive kicks in,
oxytocin is the hormone triggered. It is often described as the bonding hormone.
The literal definition of oxytocin means to relax—and survivors as in the one quoted
above, can truly relax when they feel safe and protected.
“I was in a deep state of shock when they told me that the flight had crashed
and there were no survivors. I did not have the energy to behave aggressively
to the employees who were trying to help me.”
-The sister of a man who died in an airline crash with his wife and three children
Several years ago, Foundation leadership observed an exercise where an airline
was practicing how they would interact with families awaiting an overdue aircraft
believed to have crashed. For role-plays, the company was using local volunteers,
including a family survivor who was a member of a survivor advocacy group. In the
role-plays, all of the actors displayed anger and, in some cases, rage. The most
aggressive role-player was the family survivor. Because we knew her, after the
exercise was over, we questioned her about her verbal attacks on the employees
who were trying to assist her. The quote above was her response—she admitted
that while she enjoyed putting the employees on the spot during the practice
exercise, it was in no way based on her behavior the day of the actual crash. She
said she was just having fun in the role-play.
"After my hands were bandaged, the medical team released me to go home.
I had to remain in the hotel for the night, in order to get the next flight home.
The airline people told me that I could order room service and get anything
I wanted, but I could not dial the phone. I could not dial my family’s number,
or wash myself, either. I was pretty-much unable to do anything until they
came to get me the next morning."
-Passenger survivor of an airline crash
We encourage leadership to write role-plays and injections that challenge the
employee responders to interact with the survivor actors in more realistic ways.
Left on their own, many role-players will respond with anger, not realizing that little
learning takes place with the display of only one emotion. We recommend role-plays
that include multiple emotions, including fear, anxiety, guilt, denial and
disbelief—and reactions that are representative of the dependency phase of trauma.
Role-plays involving interactions with the walking wounded survivors are also
educational. Many survivors interact with employees, after the attack or crash.
Role-plays where survivors are disoriented, confused, and in need of individual
attention challenge even the most experienced employees. It is also helpful to
include role-plays involving logistical challenges with surviving passengers and
crew such as how to assist those dependent on them for medical needs; physical
needs, i.e., torn, soiled, jet-soaked clothing; challenges with language; those
who need professional help that goes beyond employees’ training; children whose
parents are hospitalized or did not survive—the list of challenges goes on and on.
At the Foundation, we have numerous examples from our research, like the one
above where the passenger survived but needed additional help in the hotel that
went unnoticed. We are willing to share with anyone who would like to use this
material. We also have numerous examples where the compassionate response
by employees has produced the “tend and befriend” response on the part of
survivors. We believe that including these examples in pre-exercise training can be
invaluable in encouraging employees to follow their instincts in their support
of survivors. Contact Stephen Young at firstname.lastname@example.org if you would
like additional information to use for developing role-plays for your exercise.
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