Recognizing Critical Incident Stress

Post-traumatic stress, or critical incident stress, can occur during and after exposure to a life-threatening or unexpectedly traumatic event.  Exposure can sometimes be so overwhelming that people are unable to fully absorb the experience at the time it occurs.  In some circumstances this leads to a constant “reliving” of the event, intrusive thoughts about the event, feelings of anxiousness, or a multitude of other behavioral, emotional, physical or thought reactions.  Often this is due to hormones and other chemicals produced by the body to get you through the incident.   While your reactions may bother you, they are almost always a normal reaction to an abnormal event.

Here are some helpful strategies:

Remember to breathe – When we receive a shock, we often take a sudden but shallow breath in.  When we are under stress our breathing may become more shallow, resulting in increased tension in our bodies.  Taking two deep tactical, or abdominal, breaths once an hour, releases endorphins which are the body’s natural morphine, lowering your blood pressure and relaxing your body.

Monitor your self-talk – Don’t try to talk yourself out of what you’re feeling.  Acknowledge that you might be feeling overwhelmed, and give yourself permission to take it in steps.

Schedule time to remember – instead of fighting the memories, help your brain process them by taking time to deliberately recall the memories for a limited time.

Find time for yourself – practice good self-care by doing something each day that you enjoy, such as listening to music or going for a walk.

When thoughts or feelings intrude try to acknowledge them to yourself and tell someone else.  These intrusions flood you temporarily to allow you to absorb what has happened a little at a time.  The intensity and duration of these intrusive thoughts and feelings will decrease over time, especially if you do not try to avoid them altogether.

  • Talk with someone who can listen
  • Ask for help – if the first source doesn’t help, ask for someone else
  • Make lists of things to do and work on one task at a time.  
  • Rest – sleep helps to process the event and restore the body, increasing energy needed to work through traumatic events
  • Give yourself permission to laugh, and to cry
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