When you have experienced a traumatic event, you may have faced some strong emotional or physical reactions. Sometimes emotional aftershocks or stress reactions appear immediately after the traumatic event, while some may appear a few hours or a few days later. Most take weeks, months, or even years before stress reactions appear. These horrible events of critical incidents and chronic stress not only influence first responders, but it can also affect their families, spouses, life partners and children. As a result, the effects of chronic stress and traumatic stress often affect the person’s ability to effectively cope with daily life and work.
First Responders may live under the threat of constant danger in insecure areas. Responders tend to work long hours at work sites, and their living conditions may lack many basic comforts; Team dynamics and relationships can often make or break a mission. There can be cultural differences between team members or between responders and beneficiaries.
Personality conflicts may arise, impacting how team members work together. As tensions run high, there may be conflicts between staff and supervisors around decisions in a rapidly changing situation. Right after a traumatic event, some Responders experience a range of reactions, that cause them anxiety, fatigue, irritability, increased emotionality, insomnia, exaggerated startle response, change in appetite, feeling overwhelmed, and impatience withdrawing from family and friends.
People who have experienced prior trauma are more vulnerable to PTSD than those who haven’t. This is significant for First Responders, who are constantly exposed to traumatic events. There is some research indicating that females may be more vulnerable to PTSD than males, experiencing a high level of physical and psychological hyper arousal in the period immediately following a traumatic event may predispose a person to later PTSD.
Post-Traumatic Stress is usually apparent after three months from the critical incident when a person experiences symptom that includes nightmares, difficulty concentrating, irritability and/or angry, outbursts, inability to feel a full range of emotions, no longer expecting to live a full normal life, span, difficulty concentrating, an exaggerated startle response, and use of alcohol or other substances.
There are specific situations that increase one’s vulnerability to traumatic stress. Examples of this are having no control over the volume of calls, having to continue responding to calls regardless after an especially disturbing cumulative, being in a situation where one feels helpless in the face of overwhelming demands. Along with prolonged, failed, rescue, having a partner, or a peer killed or seriously injured in the line of duty. The suicide of a peer, being at serious risk oneself as in losing the wall or running out of air.
What happens during a critical incident?
During a threatening event, the body goes into an autonomic nervous system response. This is also commonly referred to as a hyper arousal state, acute stress response, or the “fight or flight” response. However, law enforcement officers generally don’t have the luxury of fleeing in a life or death situation, when a threat is perceived, or the unthinkable is witnessed.
The body and mind go into overdrive during a critical incident to help deal with the situation at hand. Physical gears go into a protection mode; adrenaline is released, there is an acceleration heart and lung activity, blood vessels dilate to allow for muscle tension, pupils dilate, and intestinal functions are inhibited. Common psychological reactions include excitement, anger, disbelief, intense fear, numbness, or trembling. These reactions may be extremely strong during the incident and are to be expected.
Critical incidents not only affect first responders but it also affects their family members and friends. They become involved in an emotional-charged incident, often known as a critical incident. The following information is to assist you in supporting them after such an event.
Emergency services personnel may be exposed to critical incidents at any time during their careers. A critical incident is any event that has a stressful impact sufficient enough to overwhelm an individual’s usual coping strategies. They can be sudden, shocking and outside the range of ordinary human experience, however there may also be an event that has a specific personal significance to the individual. Sometimes this exposure may result in strong emotional and/or physical reactions. These reactions are relatively commonplace and normal.
Research shows that up to 87% of emergency service personnel will be affected by critical incident stress at some time during their careers. Work experience or years of service do not necessarily make emergency services personnel immune to the impact of critical incident stress. From personal experience of traveling overseas and around the world, I know how difficult and painful it is to overcome critical incidents! Nothing makes sense to you at the time and sometimes you blame yourself thinking you could have done something to save them or prevent the incident. You may not forget the incident but you will get used to living your life, just remember with time.
Things that may help your family member/friend
- Do not be afraid to ask what you can do that they will find helpful.
- You may not understand what they are going through at this time but offer your love and support.
- Encourage, but do NOT pressure them to talk about the incident and their reaction to it.
- Talking can be the best medicine. Your primary ‘job’ is to listen and reassure.
- Encourage them to have some periods of physical exercise in the first few days after an incident. This should be consistent with their normal levels of exercise and medical advice should be sought if there are any difficulties with exercising.
- Exercise alternated with relaxation should alleviate some of the physical reactions.
- The reactions they are experiencing are not unusual after such an event. Recognize this and reinforce it with them.
- Encourage them to spend time with others or help them organize time alone if needed.
- Help keep their routine as normal as possible.
- Encourage them to avoid over use of drugs or alcohol, including caffeine and cigarettes.
- Encourage them not to make any big life changes or decisions.
- Encourage them to get plenty of rest and maintain a healthy diet.
Recurring thoughts, dreams or flashbacks are normal – encourage them not to fight them – they should decrease over time and become less painful.
Thank you for reading my article about First Responder Work Stress!