What is Critical Incident Stress?

A critical incident, as opposed to a crisis, may be described as any event that causes normally stable and healthy people to experience strong emotional or psychological distress. It is an event which may be regarded as being outside the normal range of experience and has the potential to interfere with the individual’s ability to cope during the incident or in their ability to cope at a later time after the incident.

A critical incident is often sudden, unexpected and can take many forms. Critical incident stress (CIS) is the emotional stress that individuals experience after being exposed to a specific incident that is perceived as traumatic. It is very common and normal for people to experience a range of reactions to critical incidents which may be cognitive, physical, behavioural or emotional in nature (Carlier, Voerman & Gersons, 2000). Different people have different reactions. Some people have limited reactions that last only a few days while others may take weeks or months to feel comfortable again. Others can even have a delayed onset reaction too.  There are also some reactions that suggest a person is having difficulty coping with the incident.

Sleep disturbance, irritability, poor concentration, confusion, nervousness, anxiety, headaches and nausea are all common reactions to a Critical Incident. Some people report feelings of depression, feeling detached from family and experiencing changes in appetite and sexual interest. Exposure to a Critical Incident can sometimes result in intrusive memories or dreams of the event too. This may occur occurs when exposed to a similar event which may trigger the memory of the critical incident. Memory can be recalled through all the sense or some. Some will remember physical sensations; others may remember smells or tastes, sounds or sights related to the critical incident.

Factors Influencing the individual Reaction to CIS

  • Magnitude of the disaster
  • The duration of the exposure
  • The degree of personal danger
  • The individual’s personality and emotional stability
  • The coping mechanisms developed from past experiences
  • The role of the worker
  • The frequency of similar experiences
  • The individual’s expectations
  • A recent tragedy in the individual’s life
  • The support and understanding of fellow-workers
  • The support and understanding of management
  • Ostracism by co-workers, family, or the general public
  • Media interference
  • Personal acquaintance with the victim(s)

(http://www.sarbc.org/ retrieved on the 16th July 2010).