Some People Freeze, Some Act


Interview with Lidija Balaz, Psychologist, Psych Perceptions
Extract: MHF Life, 1st Edition, 2018
Publishing Partner: Access News

We speak to a psychologist to learn about the physical and emotional reactions that remain after a traumatic event is over.

It was the early hours of the morning when Kitty Genovese reached her apartment block after a shift at a local bar. A man, wielding a knife, grabbed her and stabbed her while she screamed for help.

While media reports later claimed there were a large number of witnesses who either saw or heard the frenzied attack, no one stepped in to help the young woman being murdered.

While the facts have been disputed over time, the killing of Kitty in New York in 1964 quickly gave rise to the psychological expression “the bystander effect” – that the larger the number of onlookers at an incident, the less likely someone will step forward to help.

Parramatta based psychologist Lidija Balaz has worked with people suffering after a significant trauma, guiding them in their recovery and helping them to understand their physical and emotional reactions.

She has seen people grapple with strong emotions like guilt post incident as a result of being a passive bystander.

“The impacts after an incident are varied depending on whether you react versus if you don’t,” she said.

“If you step in to help, your reaction is linked to the outcome. If the person survives, you might question your skills and worry whether you should have reacted sooner or even whether you should have stepped back a little.

What if questions

“If the outcome results in a death, there is often significant guilt and ‘what if’ questions.

“The truth is we all have that instant pause or moment when we freeze. We don’t know how we will react in a situation; it’s unpredictable.

“Some people will react quickly and elicit help from others by giving instructions. Others may freeze and they often give themselves a hard time afterwards and feel incredible guilt.”
Ms Balaz has teamed with the Michael Hughes Foundation whose mission is to encourage witnesses of sudden cardiac arrest to act as first responders and not bystanders in a bid to save lives.

And the key is training.

The Michael Hughes Foundation runs free defibrillator and first responder information sessions to arm people with the knowledge to help save a life.

“In a crisis, what you know is what makes a difference,” Ms Balaz said.

“Part of the reason we train in first aid is to reduce the period of time we pause. The training kicks in, we feel more confident to jump in and help and we react faster. That can be lifesaving.”

Ms Balaz helped develop a factsheet for the Michael Hughes Foundation website that looks at the most common reactions to trauma.

In it, she suggests giving yourself permission to process the events rather than trying to block them out and seeking professional support.

In a crisis

“In a crisis, your brain shuts down a lot of the process and goes straight to survival mode,” she explained. “The brain records the events but doesn’t store it in the order they are unfolding because it is in survival mode.

“This can lead to flashbacks later when the brain reminds you of those memories when you’re feeling safe and calm and prompts you to re-order them. It is the brain’s way of trying to make sense of what happened.”

Such symptoms, she said, commonly subside after a week but can last longer.

“By the end of three weeks, most people would have processed for the most part what happened to them and can move on but if, after three or four weeks, they are still experiencing strong emotions or reactions then we encourage them to seek help.”

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