Judith Acosta greets me at the door of her new Gardiner home in cowboy boots and pearls. Originally from Westchester County, she and her husband Dave just moved from New Mexico, tucking themselves into a quiet property in the shadow of the Shawangunks. By the time I’m whisked into the kitchen and settled down with a cup of tea I feel like I’m about to catch up with a long-lost friend. A psychotherapist, crisis counselor, author, speaker, Huffington Post blogger, and novice homesteader with a passion for dogs, God, and classical homeopathy, Acosta is on a crusade to revolutionize medical and crisis care with Verbal First Aid.
Acosta’s book, The Worst is Over: Verbal First Aid to Relieve Pain, Promote Healing, and Save Lives was published in 2002 and is considered the “bible of crisis communication.” (Verbal First Aid, her second book on the subject, came out last year and is geared towards parents and those working with children.) The technique is most succinctly summed up as the application of hypnotic principles to medical or crisis situations. By using positive, calming words in times of illness or pain, you can affect measurable change in another person’s physiology; you can stop bleeding, reduce inflammatory responses, and promote healing.
“If I can use my words to make someone relax when they’re normally tense in a therapeutic environment,” Acosta argues, “why not do that in the ambulance on the way to the hospital? Verbal First Aid is a lifesaver: it can literally help someone change their biologic responses in a major event.” And while its humanitarian attributes are remarkable, its most revolutionary quality lies in the fact that it is so simple, and costs nothing. “We have this at our fingertips all day long,” Acosta notes emphatically. “When you think what we spend on protocols, rescue missions, medications, and machines — what about just using your words? This is one of the most powerful tools in a medic’s bag.”
Acosta has made a second career out of teaching Verbal First Aid to doctors, first responders, crisis counselors, and other emergency and medical professionals. But the technique, the very concept, is valuable to anyone. “Sticks and stones break bones, and so do words. I treat people all the time who suffer from things said to them 20 or 40 years ago. It’s heartbreaking, Acosta says. “Verbal First Aid ennobles the person who is doing it, and who is receiving it. It’s my hope to get out here and teach it to anyone who wants to listen.”
It seems that Acosta has always been a grab-the-bull-by-the-horns kind of gal. A writer, she started out in advertising. But when she took umbrage with an assignment — selling a diet pill to a demographic strikingly similar to that of the anorectic population — she handed in an ad that featured a picture of the pill and just two words: fat chance. She went back to graduate school, got a master’s in clinical social work, and opened a practice working with addicts and trauma victims.
In the nearly 30 years since, Acosta says she’s simplified the way she works with patients. While she uses techniques like hypnosis and classical homeopathy, she claims the hardest and most valuable part of the therapeutic process is seeing clearly what the patient is telling her they need. “We are so ready to throw one or another trick at a patient and see what sticks. It is so hard — especially in a trick-filled country — to sit and watch.” As a holistic therapist, Acosta also works with different practitioners — from body workers to nutritionists — to address the many facets of mind-body wellness.
These days, Acosta has a bone to pick with the media, which she sees as a huge obstacle to happiness. “I can get someone better from today to tomorrow, but if then they sit in front of the TV all night sucking in how fat they are, how awful they are, how unattractive they are unless they have X, Y, and Z, or how in danger they are all the time, it doesn’t do any good.” As she sees it, there are two ways to combat this unhealthy cycle: Turn it off, or make people aware that they’re being sold. “Economy isn’t bad, but manipulated need is, especially when it comes by fear.” These are some of the themes in Acosta’s first novel, The Next Osama, which was published in 2010. Set in the Hudson Valley, the book is part psychological thriller and part cautionary tale about the dangers of buying into what the media sells us.