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Understanding the Aftermath of a Critical Incident

I specifically used the term ‘Critical Incident’, as it relates to any sudden and unexpected event which is outside of our normal experience and includes an individual’s perception of a threat to life that may damage ones physical or emotional being. For our purposes we will focus on what may be construed as a violent encounter, however the post incident effects may be associated to any situation that falls under the previously mentioned definition.

I want to preface this discussion by saying that if you should ever have to experience violence, that at the time, your focus should be on the present and surviving the encounter. If you should stray and think of the future, you are already compromised and at a disadvantage to the threat.

Having said this, we would do an injustice to the student if we didn’t prepare them for what may proceed that situation, regardless of whether they were directly or indirectly involved. As we have learned over the past few years, with the increase of violence and the ability to record and relay the events through social media, one doesn’t necessarily have to be the victim to be impacted by it. ‘Triggers’ come in many different forms, and we’ll touch on some of them here as well as legal obligations for those closer to the incident.

Firstly, we need to understand that the ‘amygdala hijack’ or ‘fight or flight’ reaction may last up to 20 minutes, even after the situation has passed. What this means is that the adrenal glands may continue to produce adrenaline and cortisol which will keep your heart rate elevated as well as impair your cognitive processing during that time.

Physiologically, one will respond differently after a violent encounter depending on experience and training including mental preparedness. However, you can expect to have some uncontrollable bodily functions, such as the shaking of the extremities, legs feeling weak or heavy, the core temperature drop and sudden fatigue as your body ‘crashes’ after the adrenalin dump. Although we relate these symptoms to having been involved in a traumatic situation, they may still occur from a close call, such as narrowly avoiding a serious motor vehicle collision. What you need to understand is that no matter what your response is, it is normal to feel this way and accept it as part of the process. You may, however, not have any physical responses following a critical incident and again, this is normal and varies from person to person.

Psychologically one may have anxiety, which is an emotion associated to increased tension and nervousness. Anxiousness often elicits a sense of impending danger, panic, or doom. Physically, anxiety may have similar symptoms to that of an adrenal dump such as high blood pressure, rapid breathing, sweating, trembling and fatigue. One will then begin to avoid certain situation and often will withdraw from normal behavior.

As the name implies, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) occurs after experiencing a traumatic event. Many of the symptoms are like the onset of anxiety but continue months after the critical incident. These include, but are not limited to; disturbing thoughts, feelings or reoccurring dreams related to specific incidents, mental and/or physical distress to traumatic cues, avoidance of stressful situations, changes in an individual natural feelings and thoughts as well as prolonged ‘fight or flight’ reactions. Some may not even realize that they are suffering from PTSD until after they have been triggered, sometimes, years after the original event had even been experienced.

So, what are triggers and how can we avoid them? ‘PsychCentral’ defines triggers as being sensory reminders that cause painful memories, or the symptoms described above to resurface. As the definition applies, if you experienced a critical incident, you may recall certain sounds, smells or sights related to the event, consciously or unconsciously. Being ‘triggered’ is the provocation from a stimulus, usually sensory, which awakens or amplifies the symptoms of a critical incident or mental health disorder. The ‘trigger’ could come in many forms such as a ‘backfire’ from an automobile impacting an individual involved in a shooting or combat situations, the smell of gasoline associated to a motor vehicle collision and large crowded setting related to a riot to name a few.

Unfortunately for those having had been involved in traumatic events, being ‘triggered’ is often unavoidable, as we can not anticipate when and how they may occur. There are ways of dealing with the ‘trigger’ and reducing the impact of the symptoms associated to it. Primarily, you need to step back and identify where these feelings are coming from. Most likely it isn’t the actual ‘trigger’ but the incident that it is associated to from the past.

Secondly, you need to assess your surroundings and ensure that you are indeed safe. One of the only biological functions that we can control is our breathing and if we practice regularly, we can slow it down when it increases under duress. This process will assist in grounding yourself and identifying that you are indeed safe.

Thirdly, you should accept that you are going to have bad days and good days. Accept them for what they are noting that the good days will eventually outnumber the bad as you begin to heal. There are many ways to assist in reducing anxiety, one of which is regular meditation. Although our ego may reject this process, there is medical research indicating that mindfulness meditation will lower stress anxiety and depression. There are many apps available for those initially wishing to take this path alone before venturing out to the many other options such as yoga, vibration, and sound healing.

When you’re involved in a critical incident, there is a good chance that the authorities will be involved. Currently with the digital age upon us, the incident may have been captured though many different facets, such as mobile recording and streaming devices, surveillance systems and good ‘ole ‘fashion eyewitnesses. To get ahead of it, you should file a report with your local law enforcement service. Before you provide a statement though, you should consider that again, the amygdala hijack may continue for up to 20 minutes after the incident and could impair your ability to communicate properly as could the initial trauma sustained from the incident itself.

A good practice is to create an AAR (After Action Report) for yourself once you find that can sit and clearly articulate your thoughts. Write down the incident as you recall it, including how you felt at the time, and then reread it and affirm that it is accurate. Keep in mind that your personal perception may differ from what others saw or report. It’s important though that you capture your side of it especially when it comes to identifying how reasonable and proportional your reaction/response was to the threat to justify your actions. This process will help prepare you during the investigative process and potential court proceedings.

I would like to add, that if you have been involved in a critical incident, you should seek medical attention regardless of whether you have been injured physically as the trauma may have caused mental and emotional damage as well. By taking proper care of yourself, you will be able to provide assistance to others.

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