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October 30, 2020

Three ways to help friends in crisis

Memo from Pastor Rene

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A friend who is a local marriage and family therapist told me recently she’s booked solid with Zoom counseling sessions every day. “People are feeling so much anxiety now,” she said, “more than I’ve ever seen in my practice.” Stress from the fires, COVID, divisive politics, job losses and more is mounting. And the worst may still be ahead: Experts say rates of depression soar in the months after natural and economic disasters, long after the immediate danger has passed.

The good news? Mental health specialists like her say there are ways we can all help those in crisis. Kim Breuninger, the women’s ministry director at the church I pastor, works with psychologist and New York Times best-selling author Dr. John Townsend and his leadership group. She recently shared three key skills she’s been learning from his team, simple ways to support friends in crisis that we can all practice.

Kim prefaced these action steps by saying that in times of crisis, experts tell us there is a very real chemical war going on inside us. This can cause feelings and reactions we can all relate to when life is out of control, like a loss of self-regulation, which can result in uncharacteristic behavior. There can be issues with short-term memory. Often self-motivation goes down, and along with it the ability to problem-solve. But as friends and neighbors, even without formal training in psychology, we can show others we care in three simple ways.

First, listen…with the purpose of drawing out their stress. If you ask how a friend is doing and they respond with, “Oh, I’m fine,” gently stop and assure them, “Hey, I don’t want you to make me feel better. I really want to hear how you are. How are you coping? How are your relationships?” This is important because people don’t heal if they don’t feel heard.

Second, Kim told me we need to validate their struggle. Let them know their experiences are significant. You can say something like, “You’ve gone through so much. It must be painful and difficult to have this happen.”

And then third: At times of extreme stress many ask themselves, “What do I do next?” or even, “I have no idea what to do next.” So when they’re ready, in their time, you can help your friends identify a way forward––doable, incremental steps they can take to move through their crisis. Research has shown that baby steps reduce stress, and that our two basic needs in crisis are community and structure. So, Kim says, this step should include identifying a support team of friends and some kind of schedule: a daily or weekly routine, or a to-do list. Of course, part of the plan may be to see a professional counselor or therapist to help with recovery.

We all need to practice these simple ways to help our friends. The Bible tells us to “Carry one another’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2) As we all love our neighbors by providing a sympathetic listening ear, we can get through this!


René Schlaepfer is senior pastor of Twin Lakes Church in Aptos, www.tlc.org.

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