A Guide to Managing Stress in Crisis Response Professions

Understanding the Stress Cycle

Stress is an elevation in a person’s state of arousal or readiness, caused by some stimulus or demand. As stress arousal increases, health and performance actually improve. Within manageable levels, stress can help sharpen our attention and mobilize our bodies to cope with threatening situations.

At some point, stress arousal reaches maximum effect. Once it does, all that was gained by stress arousal is then lost and deterioration of health and performance begins.

Whether a stressor is a slight change in posture or a life-threatening assault, the brain determines when the body’s inner equilibrium is disturbed; the brain initiates the actions that restore the balance. The brain decides what is threatening and what is not. When we face challenging situations, the brain does a quick search. Have we been here before? If so, how did we feel? What was the outcome?  Can we cope with the situation now? If there’s a doubt as to any of these questions, the stress response goes into high gear.

The following provides workers and managers with a list of common stress reactions. Most people are resilient and experience mild or transient psychological disturbances from which they readily bounce back. The stress response becomes problematic when it does not or cannot turn off; that is, when symptoms last too long or interfere with daily life.

Common Stress Reactions


  • Increase or decrease in activity level
  • Substance use or abuse (alcohol or drugs)
  • Difficulty communicating or listening
  • Irritability, outbursts of anger, frequent arguments
  • Inability to rest or relax
  • Decline in job performance; absenteeism
  • Frequent crying
  • Hyper-vigilance or excessive worry
  • Avoidance of activities or places that trigger memories
  • Becoming accident prone


  • Gastrointestinal problems
  • Headaches, other aches, and pains
  • Visual disturbances
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Sweating or chills
  • Tremors or muscle twitching
  • Being easily startled
  • Chronic fatigue or sleep disturbances
  • Immune system disorders


  • Feeling heroic, euphoric, or invulnerable
  • Denial
  • Anxiety or fear
  • Depression
  • Guilt
  • Apathy
  • Grief


  • Memory problems
  • Disorientation and confusion
  • Slow thought processes; lack of concentration
  • Difficulty setting priorities or making decisions
  • Loss of objectivity


  • Isolation
  • Blaming
  • Difficulty in giving or accepting support or help
  • Inability to experience pleasure or have fun

Extreme Stress Reactions

An optimum level of stress can act as a creative, motivational force that drives a person to achieve incredible feats. As noted earlier, most people do not suffer severe effects from manageable levels of stress. Chronic or traumatic stress, on the other hand, is potentially very destructive and can deprive people of physical and mental health.

If stress is extreme and not managed, some individuals may experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged. These symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person’s daily life.

PTSD is marked by clear biological changes as well as psychological symptoms. PTSD is complicated by the fact that it frequently occurs in conjunction with depression, substance abuse, problems of memory and cognition, and other problems of physical and mental health. The disorder is also associated with impairment of the person’s ability to function in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems and divorce, family discord, and difficulties in parenting.

Increased substance use or abuse is also a concern. While researchers appear to be divided on whether substance abuse disorders increase following a disaster, there is evidence to suggest that substance use increases. While substance use increases alone do not qualify as substance abuse disorders, they can create potential health and public safety problems. This is of particular concern when the affected people are crisis response personnel who may have responsibility for public safety as part of their job duties.

While the effects of PTSD are serious and difficult to deal with, it can be treated by a variety of forms of psychotherapy and medication.

10 Tips for Effective Stress Management

  1. Familiarize yourself with signs of stress.
  2. Get enough rest, exercise regularly, and maintain a healthy diet.
  3. Have a life outside of your job.
  4. Avoid tobacco, alcohol, drugs, and excessive caffeine.
  5. Draw strength from faith, friends, and family.
  6. Maintain your sense of humor.
  7. Have a personal preparedness plan.
  8. Participate in training offered at your workplace.
  9. Get a regular physical checkup.
  10. Ask for help if you need it.

Minimizing Your Stress Before the Crisis

  • Post a weekly schedule at home so that family members can be located in an emergency.
  • Develop a home safety and evacuation plan, and review and practice it regularly.
  • Create childcare and pet care plans.
  • Design a plan for how family members will contact each other during a crisis.
  • Familiarize yourself with the disaster plans in your children’s schools and in each family member’s workplace.
  • Gather and store emergency supplies including food, water, first aid kits, battery-operated radio, flashlights, and extra batteries.
  • Prepare an emergency bag in advance in case you are deployed.
  • Take advantage of any pre-disaster training and orientation that your organization provides, including cultural sensitivity awareness.

Minimizing Your Stress During the Crisis

It’s normal to experience stress during a disaster operation, but remember that stress can be identified and managed. You are the most important player in controlling your own stress. There are many steps you can take to help minimize stress during a crisis.

  • Adhere to established safety policies and procedures.
  • Encourage and support coworkers.
  • Recognize that “not having enough to do” or “waiting” are expected parts of disaster mental health response.
  • Take regular breaks whenever you experience troubling incidents and after each work shift. Use time off to “decompress.”
  • Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, meditation, and gentle stretching.
  • Eat regular, nutritious meals and get enough sleep.
  • Avoid alcohol, tobacco, drugs, and excessive caffeine.
  • Stay in contact with your family and friends.
  • Pace self between low and high-stress activities.

Minimizing Your Stress After the Crisis

You may finish a disaster response project in a state of physical and emotional fatigue, and you may feel some ambivalence about giving up your disaster role. Be aware that you may experience some “let down” when the disaster operation is over.  It is important to give yourself time to stop and reflect on the experience and how it changed you. The following are some action steps that may be helpful to get closure in the weeks after the crisis.

  • Consider participating in organized debriefing or critique.
  • Reconnect with your family.
  • Have a physical checkup.
  • Continue normal leisure activities. Stay involved with your hobbies and interests.
  • Consider stress management techniques such as meditation, acupuncture, and massage therapy.
  • Draw upon your spirituality and personal beliefs. Take advantage of faith-based counselors and workplace counseling units.
  • Avoid using alcohol, tobacco, or drugs to cope with stress. Seek professional substance abuse treatment if necessary.
  • Use Employee Assistance Programs if you need to.

Stress Reduction Strategies

  • Reduce physical tension by using familiar personal strategies (e.g., take deep breaths, gentle stretching, meditation, wash face and hands, progressive relaxation)
  • Pace self between low and high-stress activities.
  • Use time off to “decompress” and “recharge batteries” (e.g., get a good meal, watch TV, exercise, read a novel, listen to music, take a bath, talk to family).
  • Talk about emotions and reactions with coworkers during appropriate times.


  • Recognize and heed early warning signs for stress reactions.
  • Accept that one may not be able to self-assess problematic stress reactions.
  • Recognize that over-identification with or feeling overwhelmed by victims’ and families’ grief and trauma may signal a need for support and consultation.
  • Understand the differences between professional helping relationships and friendships to help maintain appropriate roles and boundaries.
  • Examine personal prejudices and cultural stereotypes.
  • Recognize when one’s own experience with trauma or one’s personal history interferes with effectiveness.
  • Be aware of personal vulnerabilities and emotional reactions and the importance of team and supervisor support.


Stress management is key to emergency management. Successful stress management is built on prevention and planning, a solid understanding of roles and responsibilities, support for colleagues, good self-care, and seeking help when needed.

Crisis response professionals may be repeatedly exposed to unique stressors during the course of their work. Successful implementation of any stress management plan requires overcoming some obstacles and barriers, including priority setting, resource allocation, organizational culture, and stigma.

Taking action to prevent and reduce stress is a critical element of effective emergency management and supports those in crisis response professions in their collective healing and recovery.

Source: US Department of Health and Human Services: health.mo.gov

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