Critical Incident Stress

Developing healthy coping skills and learning to be resilient may help you during times of high stress. Resilience is the ability to adapt well to stress, adversity, trauma or tragedy.


A critical incident can be defined as any event that has a stressful impact sufficient enough to overwhelm the usually effective coping skills of an individual. Critical incidents are abrupt, powerful events that fall outside the range of ordinary human experiences. These events can have a strong emotional impact, even on the most experienced officer or deputy. Research has shown that critical incident stress affects up to 87% of all emergency service workers at least once in their careers. Every year, thousands of law enforcement officers are involved in intense critical incidents that can have serious long-term consequences for them.

While most individuals will not develop a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after a critical incident or traumatic event, virtually every officer will experience marked reactions during and after any life threatening, harrowing or extremely distressing experience. Immediate and short-term reactions are to be expected, and are extremely common. Some individuals may experience a prolonged or a more intensified reaction(s) to a critical incident that may develop into an adjustment disorder, an acute stress disorder, or even PTSD. It is important for every law enforcement officer to learn what the frequent and usual responses to a critical stress are, how to handle his/her reactions, the symptoms of a more acute and possibly debilitating disorder, and ways to build stress resilience.

You remember your critical incident call, probably in great detail. It may have been a call that has changed your life and/or values. An officer-involved shooting, a hostage standoff, a mass suicide, an infant at the bottom of the pool, a family trapped in a burning car, a six year old versus a semi-truck, the domestic violence call from hell, a school shooting, a rape, a natural disaster, a senseless homicide, the situation that hit too close to home, the déjà vu call--the list is infinite. It is important that the definition of a critical incident remain fluid in your mind; what may affect you will not necessarily affect another officer, and vice versa. For example, an officer who has children might be affected by responding to the traumatic death of a child more than an officer who has no children.

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 hyperarousal 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 treat 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.

Following the trauma incident it is common for an individual to experience a number of disturbing thoughts, images, and feelings for a few hours to several weeks. Sometimes these reactions may be delayed. Critical incident stress manifests itself physically, cognitively, and emotionally. Although, the symptoms are unpleasant, they are also expected and are a sign that the body and mind is recovering from the stressful event.

You responded, you did your job, and the outcome was positive, unfortunate, or both. It is over, but you still feel out of sorts. No one who responds to a traumatic event is totally untouched by it; nor will anyone have the exactly same reaction to the same incident. You cannot predict how powerful an incident will be or what effects it will have on you. You may be seasoned and tough, but you are also human. Remind yourself that having physiological and/or psychological responses after a critical stressful incident are not signs of weakness or that you are going crazy, these responses are actually quite normal.

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