Stress reactions or symptoms usually start manifesting themselves a day or two following the critical incident or traumatic event. These reactions and symptoms occur in any or all of five different categories: cognitive (thinking), physical (body), emotional (feelings), behaviours (actions)and spiritual (belief systems.)
The more traumatic the incident, the more powerful the physiological response may be, causing an instantaneous release of hormones and chemicals into the body to allow it to function in the moment. This release is totally automatic, and depending on the circumstances and duration of the event, there may be multiple releases. It is the hormones and chemicals that trigger these stress reactions which create a state of arousal that accompanies the crisis reaction caused by the critical incident. If not managed appropriately, either by oneself or with assistance, the possibility exists that it may lead to several psychological disorders including acute stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks, depression, and substance abuse of alcohol and other drugs. The following is only a sample of stress symptoms that can show up after a critical incident in the five different categories:
- Cognitive (Thinking):
Poor concentration, disorientation, memory problems, poor attention span, difficulties with calculations, difficulties making decisions, slowed problem solving.
- Emotional (Feelings):
Loss of emotional control, grief, guilt, sadness, depression, lethargy, anxiety/fear, anger, flash-backs, feeling lost and/or overwhelmed, restless.
- Physical (Body):
Muscle tremors, chest pain, headaches, difficulty breathing, gastro-intestinal distress, and elevated blood pressure.
- Behavioural (Actions):
Excessive silence, sleep disturbance, unusual behaviours, changes in eating habits, withdrawal from contact, sexual problems, changes in work habits.
- Spiritual (Belief Systems):
Removal from or becoming closer to faith communities, belief system is challenged resulting in confusion, anger, etc.
If stress reactions brought on by a critical incident are not dealt with appropriately, the symptoms may affect one’s personal and work lives, can lead to burnout and develop into the psychological conditions mentioned above.
Critical Incident Stress should be expected in the following situations:
- A life threatening experience
- Serious injury to any of the team
- Line of duty death of any team member
- Discovery of a deceased subject and recovery of the body
- Discovery of a completed suicide
- A multi-casualty incident
- Disaster, natural or man-made
- Subject dies during a response
- Emotional connection with the subject
- Emotional connection with the subject’s family and friends
- Any incident involving children
- Prolonged callout or lengthy search effort
- Failure to locate subject and search is suspended
- Intense media coverage
- Multi level political or community pressure
SAR groups should ensure that all SAR volunteers are provided with Critical Incident Stress Management services when required. Any incident encountered by a SAR member that causes them to experience a distressing reaction may be considered for Critical Incident Stress intervention. If you’re not sure, call ECC and ask to speak to one of the BCSARA CISM Program dispatchers for advice.
Any SAR volunteer can access the BCSARA CISM Program by calling the EMBC Emergency Coordination Centre (ECC) at 1-800- 663-3456, and asking to have a peer support person contact them.
Also refer to “Personal Strategies for Managing Stress” on this web site.