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Verbal Trauma Control

What you say to a wounded officer can make a life-or-death difference

If you’re with a fellow officer who’s been seriously injured in a training accident, a squad car crash or a shooting or knife attack, watch your mouth.

You may literally be able to talk that officer into surviving. But with the wrong approach, you may drastically worsen his or her chances.

The key, says popular trainer Brian Willis, a specialist in survival psychology, is the combination of mental imagery, language and expectation you exhibit at the scene.

“If you understand the critical role you can play and know how to use certain powerful techniques,” says Willis, “you can help even an unconscious victim control his bleeding, reduce his pain, improve his respiration, and ease his fears about his condition.

“With words to supplement your first aid, you often can use the time before EMS arrives to alter the ultimate outcome even of desperate, life-threatening situations.”

Willis, founder and president of Winning Mind Training, Inc., teaches a unique course called Verbal Trauma Control which informs officers how to speak in a supportive, healing fashion to a downed fellow cop, and to injured or medically stricken civilians as well. PoliceOne sat in on one of his classes, sponsored by Oak Lawn (Ill.) PD in a Chicago suburb.


The key to Willis’ approach is the subconscious human mind. In contrast to the logical, analytical and rational conscious mind, the subconscious is the doorway to imagination, emotion and self-preservation, he explains.

“When people are in traumatic circumstances, they are in an altered state of consciousness, in which their subconscious mind is highly active,” Willis says. “They not only are likely to feel scared, uncertain, confused and alone, but they are much more receptive to emotion-based input than normal and highly suggestible.

“Even if they are unconscious, they can still hear what is said within earshot, and what they hear can affect important physical functions through the mind-body connection.”

Medical researchers have confirmed this in experiments with surgical patients. Even though a patient is knocked out by anesthetic, he or she still hears what’s said in the operating room and can react physically to suggestive messages, Willis says.

“Progressive hospitals now caution doctors and nurses to scrupulously avoid negative comments in the surgical suite, such as ‘This doesn’t look good’ or ‘I don’t think she’s gonna make it.’ Some hospitals even appoint staff members to continually feed positive messages to patients during surgery because the right kind of input has been shown to lessen bleeding, control blood pressure, improve heart and lung function and speed up healing later on.”

These same techniques, Willis says, can be applied by LEOs to help one of their own or a civilian who’s hurt. “Even in the best urban settings you may have 3 to 5 minutes and in remote rural areas 30 minutes or more before EMS arrives,” Willis says. “What you say in whatever time you have—very simple language—can have a tremendously powerful impact.”

EMS personnel can successfully apply these techniques also, as can firefighters, rescue workers, military medics and others who must deal with wounded individuals.


“Your words, body language and actions need to project confidence and show that you are taking control of the scene,” Willis says. Avoid judgmental comments (“Boy, you really got yourself into a helluva mess!”) and “concentrate on delivering positive messages that have a purpose. While your hands are busy with first aid, your mouth can be rallying the victim’s physical defenses through his mind.”

Willis offers some specific suggestions for what to say early in your contact, along with their rationale:

• “I’m here to help.”

Injured people “tend to feel very alone, regardless of how many other people are around,” Willis says. “They may be scared of what’s going to happen to them, afraid of dying or being permanently injured or disfigured, possibly worried about losing their job or current lifestyle. Their mind may be going all these places. Telling them you’re going to help them allows you to quickly opens a personal connection so they no longer feel so alone and makes them more receptive to what you say from then on.”

With civilians, “establish your authority at the outset.” Tell them your name, rank and department and say, “I’m trained in emergency care,” even if you don’t actually know much about medical treatment. “This instills confidence, immediately creates credibility and starts calming the injured party because it suggests that someone’s there who knows what to do.”

• “The worst is over.”

“These four simple words send a critical message,” Willis stresses. “To the injured person, they mean that his circumstances are only going to get better from here on. This orients his mind toward a positive outcome.”

Adding that “The ambulance is on its way,” that “They’re getting ready for you at the hospital” and that “You’re going to be alright” is reassuring that a “greater level of care is imminent” and plants “a positive expectation in their imagination.”

• “I need you to help me as best you can. Will you do that?”

Give the injured person something to do, even if it’s just holding a bandage in place, “so they understand they’re part of a team effort. This gets their mind off their injury and focused on something else, tends to lessen pain and gives them a feeling of empowerment and control. When they agree to help, they make a commitment to their survival.” Also tell them what you are going to do and why, Willis advises. “This takes away some of their fear of the unknown and removes uncertainty. It makes them less anxious.”


Once you’ve established some rapport, you can start delivering pointed messages that will stimulate the victim’s subconscious mind to directly influence his physiology, affecting such survival essentials as pulse rate, breathing control and bleeding.

“Here, your tone of voice is very important,” Willis says. “You much convey your absolute belief in the ability of the mind to control certain physical functions.”

In class, Willis outlines what these messages might typically consist of and how to present them for greatest receptivity. The officers attending practice on each other in a variety of imaginary injury situations.

As with the introductory statements, the words are simple but, in reality, powerful. The techniques include these kinds of language strategies:

• “As I/You Can.”

As you tell the injured officer or civilian what you are doing to tend to him, you subtly implant suggestions for his subconscious mind to activate. Example: “As I hold this bandage on your arm, you can feel the bleeding slow down and stop” or “As I lift your head up onto this pillow, you can begin to notice how much easier your breathing becomes.”

“You’re going to be doing care-taking things anyway, so you may as well give positive suggestions to go with them,” Willis says.

• “Notice how.”

A variation is to draw the subject’s attention to something you want to occur for them. “Notice how much cooler [or warmer, depending on what’s desirable] your body is beginning to feel” or “Notice how the bleeding is slowing down.”

Says Willis: “‘Notice’ is a powerful word that tells them something has already started to happen. They just need to pay attention to it.”

• “As you listen.”

As a means of getting the injured to focus on you and screen out possibly disturbing distractions, direct their attention to your voice: “As you listen to the sound of my voice, you’ll begin to feel calm and you’ll feel your breathing start to slow down.”

You can reinforce this with a “notice” statement and a presumptive question: “Notice how you’re feeling calmer? You’re feeling more comfortable now, aren’t you?”


Offer the injured party a choice in how to reach a desired goal. For instance: “Would you be more comfortable with your arm at your side or resting on your lap” or “Would you be more comfortable with the blanket on or off?”

“Either option implies that they are going to benefit, but giving them a choice increases their sense of involvement and control,” Willis explains.


Reassurances that others have survived similar circumstances can motivate injured parties to hang on and feel better. Even if you have to make up a story, tell them about a situation similar to theirs that someone else lived through and recovered from completely.

Start the story with “Did you see that show on ’60 Minutes’… ” or “I know a guy who….” “If you tie the story to a credible TV show or to an authority figure like yourself, people will especially think it’s true and take courage from it,” Willis says.

A variation of the testimonial approach is the “Some people find…” lead-in: “Some people find that when they think about important people in their life, it helps them feel more comfortable,” etc. This deepens the testimonial with a positive suggestion and also gives them something to do that’s diverting.

Building on these fundamentals, Willis leads officers through some easy-to-perform yet sophisticated psychological tools, including how to “dial down” a victim’s discomfort level, how to create “guided images” that can control physiological functions from heart rate to blood coagulation, how to mentally bring “healing energy” to victims suffering from painful burns, how to use “anchors” to induce relaxation, and how to protect victims from the harm of negative people they may encounter after they leave you.

“This is not magic, “ Willis says, “and it is not infallible. The subconscious mind can reject suggestions as well as accept them, and if you’re dealing with someone who doesn’t want to survive, they may not. Also some injuries are so severe they can’t be overcome. But the overwhelming evidence is that for most people in most situations, verbal trauma control works.”

In fact, some of the techniques can be adapted to work on you if you happen to be the one that’s injured. And that’s something Willis explores in his important training program, too.

[Note:For more information, contact: winningmind@mac.com or phone 403-809-5954. Tactics for helping yourself or another wounded officer are also featured in Chuck Remsberg’s new book, BLOOD LESSONS: What Cops Learn from Life-or-Death Encounters, available from Calibre Press by calling (800) 323-0037 or order online here.

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