Getting Out Alive: Using Your Wits and Words to Save Your Life
Getting Out Alive: Using Your Wits and Your Words in A Crisis.
c. 2009, Judith Acosta
Lt. Costello (*1) sat behind a large, conspicuously clean desk at the Tarrytown
Police Station in N.Y. He was cool, composed, and seemed as uncluttered mentally as he
was physically. The awards on his book cases and certificates on the wall attested to a
long, successful career. “I paid my dues,” he smiled as he scanned the room and the work
it all represented. As he saw it, however, his career really started in Vietnam when he was
only a teenager serving in the U.S. Army. It was there, assigned to an armored car
division sent deep into the jungle, that he learned what it took to survive physically,
mentally, and emotionally.
He was on a mission in the Delta, it was summer and the temperature outside had
reached upwards of 115 degrees Fahrenheit before noon. Inside the tank it was at best
unbearable under normal conditions. On one particular day he still remembers with
stunning clarity, it was life-threatening.
“It must have been 130 or more inside. It was hot in a way I had never
experienced before. I couldn’t stop sweating, couldn’t drink enough, couldn’t just get up
and go to the
* Name and location changed. The story is true.
bathroom. I was burning up. I don’t mean that metaphorically. I was literally burning up
and I had to lower my body temperature somehow or I was going to die. Funny how it
didn’t scare me. It was just as clear to me as the coffee in front of me now. It was a fact. I
had no air conditioning. I couldn’t get out of the tank. There was nowhere to go except a
POW camp, if I was lucky enough to get caught and not killed right away. I remember
thinking that I should have been panicking. Instead, I was utterly, crystal clear. It was in
the space of such a small moment that I realized it was completely up to me. Whether I
survived or not was between me and my own mind.” The lieutenant sat forward, his body
compressed with the intensity of the experience, still vivid in him.
“For some reason, I thought about something I’d heard about some monks in the
Himalayas, how they went outside in sub-zero temperatures and howling winds to
meditate and never suffered any ill effects. They raised their own thermostats. And I
figured if they could do it that way, I could lower it. To this day I don’t know exactly
what I did or how I did it, but I imagined cool water inside me and around me, like I was
dunking myself into a cooler filled with ice or skinny dipping in the lake back home. And
hell if it didn’t work. I’m here. I never forgot that,” he sat back. “This,” he pointed to his
head, “was my greatest weapon of all. And it has served me ever since, no matter what or
where the battle.”
Since 9/11 the two ratings-building spin words are “survival” and “emergency.”
Today, Americans are fed a regular diet of security alerts, color-coded for those who need
the visual aids, preparedness strategies, complete with thousands of products one can buy
for only $49.95 plus shipping and handling, and countless medications courtesy of the
pharmaceutical industry to help us manage the anxiety, depression, and despair. But most
of the people who anxiously watch the colors flip back and forth from orange to red, pack
enormous first aid kits when they go hiking on local trails, or get into armored tanks that
can put holes through mountains are “prepared” in almost every way except what
scientists are now coming to believe is the most important way.
And that is the way of the mind. The images we hold in our minds seem to be
held in our bodies as well. What we think is what we are. What we feel determines how
we heal. Dr. Larry Dossey, one of the foremost proponents of mind/body medicine, has
written, “Images create bodily changes—just as if the experience were really happening.
For example, if you imagine yourself lying on a beach in the sun, you become relaxed,
your peripheral blood vessels dilate, and your hands become warm, as in the real thing.”
If this is even partially true, it is an astonishing statement.
The case to definitively establish the link between mind and body was opened
almost 1,500 years ago when Hippocrates wrote that a person might yet recover from his
or her belief in the goodness of the physician. It was continued in 1912 when one doctor
reported that tuberculosis patients who had previously been on the mend, when given bad
news (e.g., that a relative had passed away) took sudden turns for the worse and died.
And today the data supporting the connection between thoughts and health, indeed
between mental images and survival, are mounting.
Brain scans have shown that when we imagine an event, our thoughts “light up”
the areas of the brain that are triggered during the actual event. Sports psychologists
conducted one study in which skiers were wired to EMG machines and monitored for
electrical impulses sent to the muscles as they mentally rehearsed their downhill runs.
The skiers’ brains sent the same instructions to their bodies whether they were doing a
jump or just thinking about it.
What does this mean for a person out in the mountains who suddenly finds
himself stuck in a downpour and unable to get out before dark when the temperature is
expected to fall nearly 40 degrees? How does this help someone with an asthma attack in
the middle of a lake or a person with a broken leg one hour from the nearest ranger
station? How does this help a rock scrambler or skier have the performance of a lifetime
and keep themselves calm and healthy?
What some people claim is that it can mean the difference between life and death.
Verbal First Aid is a life-saving protocol based on the simple notion that the words we
say (to ourselves and to one another) do matter, that they affect us both physically and
mentally, there are ways to speak that make those words healing, no matter what the
situation. By saying the right words in the right way we are able to speak directly to the
body, reduce an inflammatory response, help to slow down or stop bleeding, change the
way an event is interpreted so that it is experienced differently IN the body.
What Can We Do, What Can We Say: Verbal First Aid in Real Life
Deepak Chopra begins to answer that last question when he uses the metaphor of
two people in a roller coaster. The following example is an adaptation and elaboration of
Two people are getting into a roller coaster. One is a young cowboy—hardly
moving off the platform yet, but his arms are already in the air and he’s hootin’ and
hollerin’ with anticipation. His heart is pounding. He’s smiling. The woman next to him
has her hands clamped down onto the metal rod in front of her. Her heart is pounding but
she is not smiling. Both are in the same seat, on the same ride, but they are clearly not
experiencing the same thing. The difference? Their thoughts.
The young cowboy in the roller coaster sees that the woman next to him is
nervous. He turns to her. She looks to him, her eyes wide. She says, “How can you be so
relaxed?” He smiles, points to his hat, “It’s my magic hat.” He takes it off his head and
hands it to her. “You hold on to it while we ride, okay? It’s easier to enjoy the ride when
you know you’ve got magic with you.” Her hands loosen their grip. She takes the hat.
Tentatively, she smiles.
According to medical experts, anxiety (or fear) and pain are inextricably woven
together for the vast majority of people. A great deal of human discomfort comes from
our anticipation of it and our perception of it. Unfortunately, there is nothing marketed as
vigorously in this country as is fear. If we’re not scared to death by a headline, it’s a radio
report, a movie, a video game, or a television show. We’re literally bombarded by images
and ideas that promote fear. We are propelled by it and sold by it.
If the science is correct, the good news is that we can change it on every level—
from the conscious to the autonomic. When we alter our thoughts, are soothed by a kind
authority, or are assured that we are in good hands, we can begin to feel the changes in
our bodies—the softening of muscle fiber, the opening of bronchial tubes, the quieting of
pain, the start of healing. This is why so much of Verbal First Aid in the field is directed
to the alleviation of anxiety through the development and utilization of rapport. In
rapport, a person will feel, “She understands me.” “He is going to help me.” “I’m safe,
now.” When we feel understood, our anxiety is reduced. And when anxiety is reduced,
pain is relieved. Even if we are entirely alone, clinicians and scientists agree that what we
say to ourselves matters and we can direct our thoughts so that our chances for survival
Whether you’re speaking to yourself or to someone else on the trail, how you
approach someone mentally and emotionally is at least as important as the medical
expertise you have, according to Winnie Maggiore, former Asst. Chief of Placitas
Volunteer Fire Brigade, paramedic, former Asst. D.A., and now a malpractice defense
attorney. “We saw the same things in the wilderness that we saw locally—snake bites,
mountain bike wrecks, breaks, falls, cardiac conditions—but the injuries in the wilderness
feel worse to the patient in that he’s away from familiar surroundings. Most of what we
had to do in rescues was anxiety management. The first step is to let the person know you
have the expertise to help. This conviction allowed us to say ‘do this’ in a way that
The other major ingredient in dealing with crises on the trail, according to
Maggiore, is giving people some sort of control over what is happening to them. “When
we were just learning emergency medicine, we were given a course in hypnosis so it
could be used in pain control, because it could be all we’d have to work with out there.
The worst part for patients was being out of control so put them back in control as much
as we could, gave them something positive to focus on. Panic is a patient’s worst enemy.”
People normally want to reassure with blanket statements, e.g., “you’re fine.”
When this is obviously untrue, it’s the sort of statement that breaks rapport. It’s better to
say, according to the experts, that the worst is over and you’re there to help. Your caring
presence is the cornerstone of the healing process. If you don’t know what to say, say
nothing and listen as you wait for help or do standard first aid. Your care can do more
than you might imagine.
The following are just two examples of ways we can talk to someone in distress
so that they are calmed, their pain is reduced, and they are moved steadily towards
Asthma in the Sandias.
Sam and his son, Jared, went for a hike up the Tunnel Springs trail. Sam was sure
Jared had packed his inhaler. Jared was sure his dad had packed it. When they got up to
the first crest, Jared was straining for breath. When they realized they’d forgotten it, Sam
was smart enough to take a deep breath himself so that when he turned to his son he was
calm, focused, and sure-footed.
Sam: Jared, I can see you’re breathing but that it’s a little tight?
Jared: (Nods, but can’t speak.)
Sam: Sit with me here and lean forward like this. Put your head forward
like this so your bronchial tubes can open and smooth out. [At this
point, Sam’s voice drops in pitch and slows down so that it’s
soothing and controlled. He “paces” his son’s breath with his own,
carefully so as not to hyperventilate, just enough so that there is a
joint rhythm. As he speaks to his son, his breathing slows down
just a little bit at a time, “leading” his son back to normal
breathing.) And as you do, you can remember very clearly how
your inhaler feels when you take a puff on it, a little cool, a little
tingly and how it opens you up pretty quickly, you can remember
how it feels when it’s working…a little more open now…a little
more open, a little cooler, until you can get a really good deep,
slow, even breath…
A Tumble Along La Luz
The La Luz trail, full of crumbled granite that feels like a trot on a field of ball
bearings, has brought more than one person to his or her knees. Cuts, abrasions, bites are
exceedingly common crises. For that reason, while it’s always smart to pack along a first
aid kit, it’s even smarter to know what to say to stop the bleeding and initiate a healthy
Sandra skids down the trail and slides into a sharp rock. When she gathers herself
up, blood is pouring down her leg from a 3-inch laceration along the side of her calf. Her
friend Kim, well-prepared for a full day hike, pulls out some Betadine, cleans the wound,
applies sterile gauze on top of it and wraps it with a clean, cotton bandana. As she does,
she speaks to her friend so that the bleeding stops and healing begins.
Sandra: Damn it! It’s really bleeding.
Kim: It is and that’s actually a really good thing so that it cleans out
the wound. As soon as you’ve washed it through enough, you can
stop [Kim emphasizes “stop”] the bleeding.
Sandra: Damn it. That was so stupid.
Kim: It happens to everyone. I know you’ve gotten cut before and
you’ve stopped the bleeding before just like you’re stopping it
right now. You can hold it tight like this. Y’know even as we’re
sitting here, it’s already starting to heal and the bleeding has
slowed to a stop so we can walk down the rest of the trail.
Mental survival—regardless of where a person is, whether that’s in the extremes
of battle or a backpacking expedition—is often a matter of recalling or being made
aware of the resources one already has. As Lt. Costello learned the hard way, the mind is
the greatest weapon of all.
Judith K. Acosta, LISW, CHT is a published author, well-respected psychotherapist,
hypnotherapist, classical homeopath, and crisis counselor. She specializes in the treatment of
trauma and anxiety—particularly with military, paramilitary and emergency personnel—
and writes frequently about spirituality and anxiety as well as fear management and the role of
the media in promulgating what she calls Viral Fear.
She is the co-author of The Worst is Over: What to Say When Every Moment Counts.
(2002),and Verbal First Aid (2010), has appeared on both television and radio and is a regular
lecturer on Verbal First Aid (the power of words to heal) as well as a variety of psychological
and spiritual issues including trauma, grief, anxiety and stress. She and her husband, Dave
Heidt, a musician and audio engineer, live in Placitas, NM with their rescue dogs.