Career advice

Coping with the stress of a major incident

It is normal for some days at work to affect you more than others. But if you are faced with a major incident, your resilience may be stretched to its limits.

It is normal for some days at work to affect you more than others. But if you are faced with a major incident, your resilience may be stretched to its limits

Remembering the victims of the Westminster Bridge attack. Picture: Getty Images

When you are involved in any kind of traumatic event, at work or in your personal life, you may initially go into auto pilot and think of everyone else but yourself. However, once the shock and adrenaline wear off you are likely to experience a wide range of thoughts and emotions.

Everyone responds differently, so how you feel, and for how long, will be unique to you. Common emotions include fear, anger, guilt, sadness and relief. You may find yourself going over events in your head or conversely you may try to deny what happened.

You may also notice some physical effects such as lack of concentration, insomnia and changes in your appetite. You may withdraw from those around you or you may be scared to be on your own. These are all normal reactions to abnormal or extreme events.

Different needs

Following the terrorist attacks in London and Manchester, nurses in both cities witnessed terrible sights. There is no doubt that such events have a lasting impact, and some staff may need ongoing support.

All hospitals are now required to have robust plans to cope with any kind of major incident, and these plans must include supporting staff. Traditionally, we tend to think of counselling as the main type of support required but not everyone is at ease with talking.

If you are involved in a major incident it is important to get the help that is right for you.  For some people this will be ‘formal’ support, for others it could be time spent outdoors, immersed in a hobby or with close friends and family.

What is known to help in the early days after a major incident is to:

  •  Find out what happened: knowing the facts can help you come to terms with a traumatic event.
  • Acknowledge how you are feeling: you don’t need to put on a brave face.
  • Contact colleagues who were on shift: you have all shared a traumatic experience, so you can support each other.
  • Attend any debriefs in your clinical area: ask questions if you need anything clarified.
  • Be patient with yourself and others: it will take time to feel ‘normal’ again.
  • Look after yourself: even though you may not feel like it, try to eat well and get some rest. Avoid blocking out memories by drinking too much or using drugs.
  • Watch your energy levels: now is not the time for new projects or extra shifts.

If after a month or so you are still not feeling yourself, or friends, family or colleagues are worried about you, consider seeking extra support, such as from your GP or occupational health department.

Think of all the care you give so readily to others. Now may be the time to accept that you also need some help.

Mandy Day-Calder is a freelance writer and life/health coach

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