Staying Well After a Traumatic Incident

Emergency services personnel witness more traumatic incidents in the course of their job role than many people see in a lifetime. The need to respond quickly, calmly, and rationally to incidents like serious road traffic accidents, infernos, and increasingly terrorist attacks means that they are at high risk of experiencing stress.

Symptoms of stress

These can fall into 4 main categories; physical symptoms, cognitive symptoms, emotional symptoms, and behavioural symptoms. Some symptoms might occur immediately after an incident, while some might appear weeks or even months later.

Physical symptoms

Symptoms of shock like shallow breathing, rapid pulse, shivering, pale and clammy skin, and dilated pupils.

  • Fatigue
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Heavy sweating
  • Thirst
  • Headaches
  • Visual disturbances
  • Body aches and pains

Cognitive symptoms

These can occur at the scene of an incident, which can have repercussions for a worker’s safety, the safety of their colleagues and the safety of those they’re trying to help. Symptoms include:

  • Confusion
  • Disorientation
  • Increased or reduced alertness
  • Poor concentration
  • Inability to solve problems or make decisions
  • Memory problems
  • Nightmares or flashbacks

Emotional symptoms

It’s normal to react emotionally to a traumatic situation. Emergency services personnel should have access to support from a mental health professional if they experience emotional distress after an incident, especially if it persists. Symptoms can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Guilt
  • Denial
  • Grief
  • Fear
  • Irritability
  • Inability to control emotions
  • Depression
  • Feelings of failure
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Blaming others or self for events

Behavioural symptoms

Some personnel might notice that they, or their colleagues display some changes in behaviour following exposure to a traumatic incident, including:

  • Intense anger and emotional outbursts
  • Withdrawal
  • Changes in appetite, eating more or losing your appetite
  • Drinking more alcohol
  • Feeling restless
  • Sexual dysfunction

How to stay well after a traumatic incident

Everyone is different, so people will inevitably react differently after they have gone through a traumatic incident. But however resilient you consider yourself to be, you can take some steps to reduce stress and make sure that you stay well after exposure to trauma.

  • Reach out to others: don’t bottle things up. Having someone to talk to makes a big difference and it will help you to retain some perspective during difficult times.
  • Take time to do things you enjoy to help reduce stress and recharge your batteries.
  • Don’t worry about ‘getting back to normal’: This takes time. Gradually work back up to doing your normal routine and don’t be hard on yourself.
  • Don’t feel guilty for being happy: It’s okay to laugh and feel grateful for what you have.
  • Let your family in: Your loved ones will be there with you after the incident. They’ll see how it’s affected you and you need to talk to them. Mutual understanding and patience will help you to make sense of how you feel, and it will help them to understand how they can best support you.
  • Don’t turn to drugs or alcohol: You might think that they are a way of escaping how you feel but relying on them to cope will bring a new set of problems.
  • Look after yourself: Make sure you’re getting enough sleep, eat well, and take regular exercise. Practicing mindfulness and meditating can help to reduce stress, calm the mind, and help you to deal with difficult feelings in a more emotionally balanced way.

How we can help

We use our expertise in workforce wellbeing, individual and organisational wellbeing, and performance and trauma management to help front-line emergency services staff become better equipped to manage the pressures and challenges they face. The services we offer include tailored support for personnel, their managers and their families, stress-relieving strategies, and therapeutic interventions.

For more information on our work with the emergency services, contact Maureen on 07939 845920 or via maureen@mocallaghan.co.uk , or contact Kirsty Knight on 07816 923789 or at kirsty@openmindstherapy.co.uk