Personnel working in a disaster zone are faced with confronting situations and great strain that may make them vulnerable to stress. Research has shown that the following five elements are proven to prevent and reduce stress after trauma:
1. Promote a sense of safety
Safety is first priority. As long as lives remain endangered, other support measures will have little effect. If those affected manage to maintain or quickly re-establish a sense of safety, the risk of long-term injury is reduced. Safety can be relative and it is important to have a balanced and realistic view about the levels of individual risk.
2. Promote calming
In a disaster setting, physical and psychological activation is common. Physical reactions like increased heart rate, rapid shallow breathing, tense muscles, sweating, nausea, dry mouth and dizziness are completely normal. However, extended arousal is associated with disruption of sleep, dehydration, poor decision-making and long-term health problems.
3. Promote a sense of self- and collective efficacy
Personnel who believe they have the skills to overcome dangers and stress are shown to be better at problem solving during stressful times and recover more quickly afterwards. The preparations should therefore include stress management, skills development and hypothetical deployment scenarios. Thorough training can prevent and counteract perceived helplessness during and after a critical incident.
4. Promote connectedness
Social connectedness is one of the strongest protective factors against stress injury. A strong social network improves emotional wellbeing and recovery following trauma. In addition to support from colleagues, leaders and organisations, it is important to maintain personal relationships with family and friends before, during and after deployment.
5. Promote a sense of hope
A disaster can be chaotic and overwhelming. This can lead to loss of faith in people, the world and the future. It is important to create an environment where it feels safe to be open and honest about disappointments, doubts and challenges. However, it is also important to avoid an organisational culture characterised by catastrophising.