November 2014

When stress calls for help

Extremely stressful events can leave people permanently traumatised. Emergency psychological support from Helsana can prevent the trauma from developing into a long-term disorder. Mischa Oesch, an expert in coping with trauma, works on a helpline for trauma victims.

Psychologische Soforthilfe

Trauma can have a multitude of triggers: a train crash, for example, like the one in Tiefencastel in the middle of August 2014, although often the effects do not become apparent until long after Rega have completed their rescue operations and the physical wounds have healed.

Mr B. was plagued by anxiety after his heart attack. He could barely muster the courage to leave the house. «He worked himself into a panic as soon as his pulse started to pick up», explains psychologist Mischa Oesch, who assisted him on the emergency helpline one-and-a-half years after his heart attack. «I explained to him that his reaction was nothing unusual. A suddenly perceived loss of control can be traumatic.» Mischa Oesch wishes that people like Mr B. would not wait so long before they seek help. Especially when in most cases the situation can be improved in just a few easy steps. «It takes a huge weight off callers' shoulders to know that they are not alone and that somebody understands.» She says that men are especially anxious about calling up. Often they often find it more difficult to identify with and reflect upon their feelings. «Symptoms of stress are quite normal after a serious incident, however. It does not mean that the person is losing their mind», emphasises Mischa Oesch. She has a warm voice and speaks in soothing tones. Since she is deprived of non-verbal cues such as facial expressions and body language, she has to listen very attentively to her callers and pick up on changes in their tone of voice. «It is often easier for callers to pick up the phone than walk into a practice, even though in most cases this would be the best scenario.»

Emergency assistance for chronic disorders

Had the heart attack patient called earlier, says Mischa Oesch, he would likely not have developed such severe anxiety. «It is never too late for psychological help. But the earlier care is sought after the incident in question, the lower the risk that unfavourable developments will be missed and thus that the incident could lead to post traumatic stress disorder.»This can happen if the person does not process the trauma that is triggered – be it by violence, an accident, a disaster, a bereavement or the diagnosis of an illness. In the acute phase, sharp mood swings and stress symptoms are normal. If these do not subside after a few weeks, however, there is the risk of personality shifts, loss of memory, sleep disorders or physical conditions such as heart palpitations, shortness of breath and nausea. «While this remains the exception rather than the rule, even the most psychologically stable among us are not immune.»

Copying strategies vary from one person to the next. «Some people find comfort in talking to others, others seek peace and solitude in nature.» She never fails to be amazed by how resilient people are. Like the train driver who had already dealt with three suicides and was only pushed to his limits when confronted with a fourth. How does Mischa Oesch determine what will be the best course of action for the caller? «It's vital for me to know how they live, what has helped them in similar situations before.» It is also important to instil a feeling of self-determination, she elaborates. She recalls the case of a breast cancer who once phoned the helpline. «The lady was completely devastated when her doctor delivered the news and she was very scared.» Mischa Oesch gave her the confidence to talk to her doctor. They discussed what to do and arranged a time to call again. «Having someone she could trust and confide in boosted her courage. I would have also mediated on her behalf, had she asked me to.»

High-pressure working environments are a major strain

The reasons why people call are changing: «More family problems, more burn-outs.» She attributes this to a tougher working environment and higher pressure. Often it is the partners of those affected who call. Like the wife of a stressed-out manager: «She shielded him from all problems affecting their day-to-day lives. Everyone had to tread on eggshells around him, including their children. But this only exacerbated the cycle of illness.»

Mischa Oesch isn't always able to help. «Sometimes my advice falls on deaf ears. Especially when the callers think I can wave a magic wand and make all their troubles go away, or that I have a one-size-fits-all solution.» Like those who are grieving and hope that the pain will disappear when they put down the phone, even though it is quite normal for it to take time to process such news. «But at the very least I can give them a point of reference, locate suitable resources, and refer them to someone who can help them further – and we can laugh together.»

Text: Daniela Schori