Understanding And Dealing With Violent And Traumatic Events In Communities & Organizations

By: Michael G. Conner, Psy.D

May 21, 2014

None of us are fully prepared to deal with traumatic events. We feel devastated whenever property is destroyed or there is serious injury or a loss of life. We can become overwhelmed when friends, co-workers and loved-ones experience tragic, dangerous, life threatening or violent events. We can look for support from our community, friends, families, co-workers, employers, a health care professional, a spiritual leader or a belief in a higher power. A special meeting within the first 24 to 72 hours of a traumatic incident for the people directly involved as well as others affected is an important step toward recovery. Discussing what happened, our role, what we thought as well as our emotional and physical reactions is critical. This may not take place all at once but may need to happen formally and informally over period of weeks. Without debriefing, the problems associated with traumatic incidents can become chronic and less responsive to treatment. Debriefing can become more challenging when communities and individuals are exposed to repeated traumas over time. Education and self-care are essential when there is no clear end. 

Stress Reactions Following Traumatic Events

  • Anxiety, fear, panic or anger
  • Emotional numbing
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Waking throughout the night
  • Nightmares or daydreaming
  • Exhaustion or mental fatigue
  • Change in appetite
  • Disbelief or denial of events
  • Reliving images of the traumatic event
  • Dwelling on the event
  • Easily angered or upset
  • Depression or worsening depression
  • Problems concentrating
  • Accident proneness
  • Increasing frustration or impatience
  • A tendency to isolate or withdraw
  • Neglecting responsibilities
  • Reluctance to assume responsibilities
  • Fear or reluctance to be open or talk
  • Episodes or outbursts of crying or sadness
  • Fear or reluctance to express emotions
  • Headaches, stomach aches, indigestion
  • Children acting younger or less responsible
  • Children return to bed wetting

Information And Steps You Can Take

  • Critical Incident Stress Debriefing should be conducted by qualified and trained personnel. This may include peers or professionals who are trained and experienced. 

  • Brief interventions focused on emotional support as needed on an individual basis during recovery operations are essential if there is repeated and ongoing traumatic events. 

  • The incident should be debriefed from a social and psychological perspective at  scheduled times and places as people disengage from the trauma site and recovery operation. These debriefing are usually more formal. Organizational or community  leadership and administrative discussions should occur during community time and at separate times.

  • During a debriefing, two hours or more of uninterrupted time for people to express feelings, thoughts and concerns is often needed.

  • At least one experienced facilitator is often needed and recommended. Larger groups may require more than one facilitator or may require several meetings and debriefings.

  • During the debriefing it is important that participants be assured that there will be no reprisal or loss of status for attending.

  • Participants should have an opportunity to identify and discuss what happened, the impact it has had on them and their experience coping. Group size should be large enough to allow discussion (but not too large).

  • Debriefings should also include discussion of common experiences, feelings and thoughts about the incident using a semi-structured debriefing process.

  • As an outcome, participants should come to realize that their reactions are normal. They should learn how they can cope, how they will adjust over time and when to seek help.

  • Should symptoms or stress reactions following a traumatic event become severe, debilitating and prolonged, individuals should learn when and how to contact a health care professional for advice.