Helping Others Can Heal the Brain.
By World of Psychology & By
Kirsten Levin Belzer, LCSW, CHT
The greatest show in Las Vegas history must be the recent outpouring of the best of humanity. The courage shown by professional rescuers and regular citizens reaching out to help, and even risking their lives to do so, leaves many of us wondering what would we do and what can we do to help others.
Making a positive difference in someone’s life doesn’t take a life-threatening effort. Simple kindnesses can go a long way for someone struggling. I was lucky enough to receive such help this summer.
I blew out my ankle. Really blew it out. As I enjoyed a walk with my husband, on slightly uneven pavement my foot slid off the side of my two-inch platform sandal. Three bones broke and the ankle dislocated.
A 30-something couple immediately rushed to help as I sat crying and cursing on the ground, ankle deformed. The woman shielded me with her bike from any traffic in the alley close to where I crumpled. Her husband ran to get ice. My husband ran to get the car several blocks away.
This caring couple stayed with me while he was gone. I asked the woman if she was in the medical field, as she seemed so calm talking with me in my panicked state. She was not. The iceman cometh and brought immediate relief. They reassuringly talked with me about the time a car hit him and noted how he was OK now.
Another young stranger warmly put his hand on my back, asking if there was anything he could do. I thanked him but declined. His smile and thoughtfulness remain etched in my mind, even though he may have thought he did nothing of importance. But as a psychotherapist, I know neuroscience tells us that looking into someone’s eyes in an attuned way or a gentle touch from a safe person actually helps regulate and calm the nervous system.
My husband arrived and he and the Iceman helped me up from the concrete to hop to the car. In the ER doctors expertly popped my ankle back into place. A subsequent surgery left me cocooning at home for seven weeks unable to bear weight on the foot.
I cannot thank those strangers enough for their concern. I don’t know how I could have made it alone sitting on the curb, ankle protruding waiting for my husband to fetch the car. I also don’t know what I would have done had I not had my loving husband to care for me in the moment and ensuing months of recovery.
When we have a traumatic event, something positive in that experience, such as the demonstrated concern of another human being, aids healing. The positive helps eclipse the negative. When I think back to that scary, life-changing fall, I also think of the kindness shown and feel gratitude. How many of us walk around shielded, not reaching out to others due to whatever fears or hesitancies hold us back?
Yet our brains are wired for connection. Having someone help us at a time of distress with as little as a kind word or caring facial expression, helps our brains heal from trauma. Our brains seek safety and we neurologically change for the better in its presence. When I watched Las Vegas video, I knew that although the helpers couldn’t cure the trauma, they were definitely aiding the healing.
The ultimate calming presence, Fred Rogers of Mr. Rogers fame said, “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” How important this lesson is as we watch the aftermath of mass shootings, hurricanes, terrorist attacks, and hate rallies. I know the helpers in these scenes are providing greatly needed brain healing mental health services, whether they know it or not.
In these days of daily distressing news, we can ask ourselves how can we each set an intention to help others every day even in small ways. Such acts of kindness toward others have been clinically shown to improve one’s own level of happiness and I believe help our whole world.
What better time than now for such intentions?