Chaplain's Column: How to Survive Critical Incident Stress

Imagine yourself walking down a nature trail. Suddenly you find yourself between a couple of cuddly bear cubs, and a furious mother grizzly. She stands on her hind legs, roars in anger, baring her fangs just before attacking. What do you do?!?! This is like critical incident stress; you don't see it coming, your normal coping skills don't work and it can be deadly.

During your training academy, you received something called a "stress inoculation." An inoculation gives you a very small amount of the disease so your body develops immunity against it. Even if you still catch the disease, your body will be much better equipped to fight it. A stress inoculation is designed to give you a small dose of what you will see and experience in the field, so you will develop immunity against its ill effects.

Jeffrey Mitchell, Ph.D., C.T.S. describes critical incidents as "...unusually challenging events that have the potential to create significant human distress and can overwhelm one's usual coping mechanisms." Critical incidents usually involve something traumatic such as officer involved shootings, line of duty deaths, officer suicides, or exposure to extreme human suffering--gory homicide or accident scenes, or ____ (fill in the blank).

Most critical incident stress (CIS) involves line officers. They frequently respond to emergency calls involving fatal car crashes, violent crimes, and combative suspects.

CIS can lead to a variety of ailments. These include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), panic attacks, and depression, not to mention alcohol and/or drug abuse. These experiences accumulate and can eventually change a person. A person becomes jaded and cynical.

Here is an example of CIS: a small aircraft went missing. Several days passed until someone spotted the wings. They were high on a mountain, a few hundred feet below the tree line. Search and Rescue found the cockpit buried into the ground between some trees. Apparently, the pilot had lost control, plummeting to the ground. The wind sheared the wings off during a "death spiral." They would have to excavate the plane.

The terrain was difficult and steep. The elevation made it hard to catch your breath. You knew you were getting close, because the stench was overwhelming. The chaplain arrived about the time the cockpit was fully uncovered. He noticed a "small blue hand, frozen and grasping at nothing" sticking out of the top of the wreckage. Up until the time that little hand was uncovered, they were only looking for a single victim. A family of five was in the small fuselage.

A lone deputy coroner directed the recovery effort. They painstakingly peeled back layers of metal to uncover the victims. It took over four hours. The deputy repeatedly radioed for assistance. None ever came. There were numerous search and rescue, fire personnel, and chaplains, but there were no other deputies--no support from his peers.

The first victim was only seven. His little body was mangled and broken like a pitiful rag doll--his head bashed open. Next was a decapitated toddler. His head was found in the engine compartment. The deputy next pulled out a 12-year old, missing his entire forehead. The mother was removed in two large pieces. The dad was just a mass of bones and flesh. Each victim was personally handled by the deputy, with occasional assistance from a "70-year-old search and rescue volunteer".

Not surprisingly, the deputy was very quiet, even with the chaplain. It was later learned the deputy didn't go out of service after leaving the scene. He personally went through the family's luggage. He reviewed the hundreds of photos he took of the crash scene as part of the investigation. Finally, he took the next several days to write the enormous report by himself.

The deputy took a six month leave of absence from the department. He never returned to work.

This is one example of how CIS can overwhelm a person. So how do you stop this "raging mother grizzly" of critical incident stress from ripping your insides out?

  1. Know yourself.

    The first step to battle CIS is to be prepared. Take care of yourself before a critical incident. Exercise, good diet, and downtime are helpful. Hydrate with water. Know your stress levels, and when you need a break. Build relationships with loved ones, they will be your strongest defense.

  2. Know the enemy.

    When we get an "adrenaline rush," there are some 10,000 chemicals dumped into our bodies. These chemicals take an average of 18 hours to get rid of when unchecked. Drinking water flushes chemicals from our bodies. Exercise sweats the chemicals out. Avoid caffeine, sugar and alcohol, since they just add more chemicals to the mix.

    Officers fall back to the level of their training. Most go into "automatic pilot" when facing a critical incident. You are trained to control yourselves and the situation until the crisis is resolved. This is important for officer safety. After the crisis you may feel out of control. You may feel depressed, confused, angry, and a host of other things. You may feel numb and not feel anything at all. You may experience physical reactions such as headaches, sleeplessness and/or nightmares, stomach upset, even vomiting. Realize it is normal to react abnormally after a critical incident.

  3. Know your support system.

    Your spouse and/or family can help you heal. Don't shut them out. You don't have to share the gory details, but do share how you felt. Hold their hand. Talk to them.

    Find someone you trust and talk to them about the incident and vent.

    Chaplains can offer confidentiality, and are trained to listen. They understand the unique challenges officers face. Most are trained in CIS and can help directly or can refer to other professionals.

  4. Know where to get help.

    Chaplains, peer support and employee assistance programs are good places to start.

If you know someone who has recently gone through a CIS, don't ignore them. Reach out your hand to them and offer help.