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.

Remember the purpose of the department's incident debriefing is to assess the total response to the incident by the team, usually from a tactical perspective; what went well, what didn't, what other resources could have been involved, and what should be improved upon related to future departmental responses to similar events. You may hear criticism. Don't let that bring you needlessly down; the intent of the debriefing is not to attack anyone personally. Debriefs after a traumatic incident may also bring back a rush of some very unpleasant physical and mental memories. Find a partner or peer support officer to process the debriefing afterwards. This will help you sort out your feelings. Monday morning quarterbacks will be chomping at the bit to get their two cents in; take what is helpful and ignore the rest. Remind yourself that you were the one who was there; you responded, intervened and reacted to the event to the best of your ability. The situation is now over and you are safe.

When to seek additional help

While in most instances the symptoms of critical incident stress will subside in a matter of weeks, there will be a few officers who will suffer prolonged or permanent emotional trauma that can adversely affect their mental and physical health, relationships, careers, and daily functioning. Protracted or increasing symptoms indicate that you are not coping well. Take notice if you are experiencing any of the following: you are uncomfortable in your own skin, you are chronically afraid and/or hypervigilant, you don't want to leave your safety zone; you have obsessive thoughts and compulsions to act on them. You feel profoundly depressed, hopeless, helpless, guilty, or have considered suicide. Your behavior has changed; you are more argumentative, engaging in fights, abusing alcohol or medication, or are taking increased unnecessary risks. Your mind cannot relax, you have repeated horrific nightmares, frequent intrusive explicit flashbacks, or you feel like you are not connected to yourself or your thoughts. Things don't feel real or you feel like you have lost your identity. You have persistent negative, even fatalistic, thoughts about the future. You are unable to remember significant information about the traumatic event. All of these are signs that could indicate that you are experiencing an acute adjustment or anxiety disorder, including PTSD. The earlier you seek treatment, the more promising your prognosis. Therapy, individual and group, as well as some psychotropic medications are generally effective. Commonly prescribed medications include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, or sedatives for sleep. Unfortunately, some of these drugs carry the potentiality of dependence.


The most important element of combating critical incident stress is pre-incident stress education. The process should be started in the academy and continued with annual refresher courses. Education before an actual traumatic event can help an officer reduce the impact of the incident; control or recover from more reaction symptoms more readily; and allow for the recognition of an acute stress disorder in order to seek appropriate assistance more quickly.

Ways you can improve your resilience to stress:

Reactions to critical incidents are expected; there is of course no way to prevent a psychological response to future incidents. However, 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.

  • Maintain a supportive network; talk things over with caring friends and loved ones
  • Seek out humor or laughter
  • Live a healthy lifestyle: a healthy diet, physical exercise, maintain a regular sleep routine
  • Think positively about yourself
  • Remind yourself that you can get through the next situation
  • Use stress management and coping skills, such as exercise, yoga, or meditation regularly
  • Make time for activities you enjoy, try new activities or find new hobbies
  • Maintain family and social commitments and outings
  • Find additional support as needed; a group, spiritual guidance, or therapist
  • Clean up lingering daily stressors that will exacerbate the next major stressor; pay off credit card bills, send the mother in law home, change negative personal habits, etc.
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