Critical incidents refer to traumatic situations that emergency service workers can encounter on the job. This includes experiences and events that can compromise their mental and physical well-being. Their ability to function depends on how they manage the stress. The condition can last anywhere between 2 days and 4 weeks. This makes it different from PTSD which can be triggered anytime after a traumatic incident.
Even though most emergency responders may not develop PTSD after a traumatic event, almost every one of them will experience short-term effects. This can be anything from an adjustment disorder to acute stress. To prevent CIS from turning into PTSD, law enforcement and emergency response professionals should be trained to manage their reactions.
What Happens During a Critical Incident?
Our body’s autonomic nervous system goes into overdrive when we feel threatened by a situation or a person. Also known as hyper arousal or the ‘fight or flight’ instinct, it can compromise mental faculties if it is not managed immediately. Since emergency service responders don’t have the luxury to choose the flight option, they have to go through unthinkable experiences.
During a critical incident, their mind goes into overdrive to help them deal with the situation at hand. Their heart rate increases, they start breathing rapidly, blood vessels dilate to prime muscles, and gastrointestinal functions are inhibited. Reactions can range from fear and anger to disbelief and excitement.
The impact of the critical incident usually results in trauma in the form of disturbing thoughts and emotions that can last for weeks. The reaction may be delayed in some people but when it does occur, it will be unpleasant regardless. However, allowing those emotions to take their course is a sign that the body is trying to heal from the event.
Common Symptoms of CIS
Some of the common physical signs and symptoms of Critical Incident Stress include:
- Muscle tremors
- Consistent sweating
- Rapid heart rate
- Fainting spells
- Elevated blood pressure
- Temporary blindness
Physical symptoms are usually followed by cognitive impairment that can manifest in the form of:
- Memory impairment
- Loss of time, person or place
- Lack of awareness
- Poor concentration
- Difficulty identifying common objects
- Suicidal thoughts
- Hyper vigilance
What Can be Done?
Employees or emergency response professionals who demonstrate most of the abovementioned symptoms should be monitored at all times. The key is to reduce their stress levels to manageable levels by:
- Encouraging them to share their feelings
- Removing caffeinated drinks from the vicinity
- Limiting their exposure to odors and noise that may trigger traumatic memories
- Encouraging them to take a few days off
The Role of CIS Management
Critical Incident Stress Management is a wellness program that is designed to increase awareness of CIS through ways in which it can be mitigated. This includes limiting exposure to stressful incidents that can otherwise trigger the condition. The program is managed by a group of specially trained professionals who specialize in crisis intervention.
Critical Incident Stress Management is a wellness program that is designed to increase awareness of CIS through ways in which it can be mitigated. This includes limiting exposure to stressful incidents that can otherwise trigger the… Click To Tweet
These professionals spearhead Critical Incident Stress Debriefing as a group process right after an event that has the potential to cause trauma. The process takes a structured approach which comprises of 7 steps namely:
During this process, victims are encouraged to share their experiences of the incident and its consequences. This is closely followed by a discussion on common stressful reactions and how they can be managed.
With early intervention techniques such as this, emergency support and law enforcement professionals can get the support they need when they need it. This can prevent PTSD and serious mental health issues from taking root.
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