Crisis Stress: Part 1 – How and Why A Crisis Affects People

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During disasters and emergencies people are affected by the stresses and challenges of these events. These stresses can sometimes be quite traumatic. We should be attentive to the ways in which such events affect and change those who are working, living, enduring, and surviving during a high-stress crisis. In addition to recognizing and adapting to the dynamics of those with whom we work or manage who are under tremendous pressures during crises, we ourselves as crisis managers are likewise affected by the stresses of these events.

Even emergency responders and crisis managers who (usually) are well-trained professionals (with specialized technical and professional knowledge appropriate to deal with a wide range of emergencies, dangers and disasters) can be significantly impacted by crisis events and high-pressure situations. Research and after-action reviews show that crisis mangers are, in general, a physically and psychologically resilient group of professionals, especially when compared with the general population. These professionals typically understand the challenges of their work and effectively manage the demands and stresses they face. However, even among such generally resilient individuals the demands of crises do affect managers in several significant ways.

Crises are stressful events for everyone who is touched by them, sometimes even when the connection is indirect or at great distances. There are performance challenges, time pressures, high stakes risks, dangers to health, safety and well-being, and exposure to horrific circumstances – all of which result in dramatic responses in the body, brain and mind of those of us who are experiencing them. Further, while we all are affected by such stresses, we are each individually different in how such stress affects us including to the nature, persistence and degree to which we are affected. Thus, a general tendency is inherently manifest in idiosyncratic ways.

Categories of Stress

In broad terms, such stresses can be classified into several practical categories. First off, there is chronic lower order stress. Lower order stress is stressful but falls into a category that most of us would classify as the “normal” background stresses of daily life and the work day. This includes meeting deadlines, traffic problems, dealing with difficult people, spilt milk, flat tires and the routine “headaches” of home life and work life. We all carry differing degrees of chronic lower order background stress. This can range from the relatively minor stresses of daily living (e.g., a lost set of car keys) to more significant personal life events such as financial or relationship issues. Most of us (but not everyone) tolerate such stresses and manage to perform within normative ranges despite such stress. In cases where such stress is not managed well, there may be a need for intervention. The are many useful guidelines to help individuals more effectively manage chronic lower order stress (these typically include nutrition, rest, exercise, or mental relaxation solutions). However, in most cases, the major implication of such chronic lower order stress comes from the fact that the effects of stress are cumulative. Which may be an important variable for some people when it comes to the impacts of acute stress.

Second, there is acute stress. We recognize that there are varying degrees of acute stress. To simplify an inherently complicated range of stress levels, we can divide them into three (broadly defined) levels of acute stress: High, Hyper, and Traumatic. It is not the purpose of this short essay to categorically and mutually exclusively define these three levels of acute stress. These acute stressors are tied to specific events, situations or contexts (compared with chronic lower order stress). An emergency, critical incident, disaster, or any situation that would be regarded as a crisis would create the necessary conditions for acute stress. The exposure to the aspects of the event, the responsibilities for managing or ensuring the safety and well-being of others along with the accountability and scrutiny of their performance. High stress would be situationally or psychologically induced responses to non-routine contexts that has measurable effects on normal physiological and psychological processes and functions. This might be delayed reaction times, longer information processing temporal brackets, or changes in heart rate or respiratory patterns). High stress certainly affects us but usually not pushing us outside of our normal “range” of measurable performance. Sustained or long periods of high stress can be detrimental to our physical and psychological well-being. Highly stress resilient individuals may be able to continue to perform within their normative range even when experiencing high stress events. However, when they reach their threshold point and the stress triggers detrimental breakdowns that stress is regarded as hyper stress.

Hyper stress is more stressful than high stress in that it reaches peak points of measurable effects that dysfunctional diminishment on individuals (e. g. dysfunctional behavioral changes, cognitive diminishment sufficient to disrupt decision making, short and long-term memory omissions or distortions, etc.). The difference between high stress and hyper stress is defined by its effect on the person (not an inherent aspect of the stressor). Hyper stress is experienced when a there is a statistically significant dysfunctional diminishment in my ability to think, perform or behave. An example might be a change in measured reaction time that is greater than a statistically significant (standard deviation) from my normal reaction time range. What is “high stress” for one person may be “hyper stress” for another.

Once stress has induced a psychological adjustment disorder (which includes subtypes of anxiety, depression and disturbance of conduct and/or combinations of these symptoms) is classified as traumatic stress. Traumatic stress is stress that has a significant and lingering longer-term effect on psychological processes with changes in sleep patterns, feelings of dread, overwhelming emotional reactions, depression, etc. In fact, these effects can continue to manifest long after an acute stress situation has ended – which is the disorder classified as post-traumatic stress syndrome. Traumatic stress arising from events that are similar or less threatening and persistently distressing than the significant events that can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder.

Acute Stress Resiliencetypes of stress

Acute stress (high, hyper and even traumatic) experienced during crises is natural and normal. One cannot avoid acute crisis stress, nor do you necessarily want to do so. In fact, acute crisis stress is not always (at least initially at the lower end of the severity spectrum) a bad thing to experience. Research suggests that the acute stress, for many, stimulates boosts in performance This alerting and orienting stress response, physiological and psychological changes (the ancient “fight or flight” or Acute Stress Response [ASR] at work). Initially and in the short run, the Acute Stress Response enables us to focus, concentrate on the core task and physically excel (that is the fighting or running aspect of the ancient response). The heightened focus and perceptual narrowing can be advantageous for some circumstances. However, beyond certain optimal threshold levels too much or too prolonged stress of emergency contexts can create dysfunctional physical and mental impacts.

However, stress resilience is a developed characteristic which can enhance one’s stress tolerance and stress management capacity. It can also extend the range within which one can successfully cope with high stress without shifting to hyper stress. Stress resilience is the ability to successfully cope with a crisis and to return to pre-crisis status quickly. Resilience exist when a person uses physical and mental techniques, processes and behaviors to protect them from the potential negative effects of acute crisis stressors. In simpler terms, stress resilience exists in people who develop psychological and behavioral capabilities that allow them to remain calm. These capabilities allow the person to function within a normal performance range during crises/chaos without significant dysfunctional diminishment. They can then subsequently move on from the incident without long-term negative psychological or physiological stress related consequences.

Although not everyone reacts to specific stressors in the same way, nor to the same degree, and not at the precise same trigger levels, the most common progression of effects of stress are usually similar in most people. In the next essay (part 2 of this essay series) I will cover some of the physiological reactions to crises including more about the Acute Stress Response (ASR) pattern.

About the author: Dr. Robert C. Chandler

Firestorm Expert Council member Robert C. Chandler, Ph.D. is an internationally recognized expert on topics related to disaster, crisis and emergency contexts. His subject matter expertise also includes aspects of communication, leadership, decision making, team and group communication, crisis and emergency communication, message composition, audience variables and meaning, comprehension and understanding. Dr. Robert Chandler currently holds an appointment as Visiting Professor at Lipscomb University where he founded the Forum on Crisis and Consequence Management and he oversees graduate academic and professional development educational offerings in the areas of health communication, crisis and consequence management, crisis and emergency communication, public relations, advertising, intercultural communication, and organizational communication.
Dr. Chandler is the author, editor or co-author of nine books and more than 175 academic and professional papers. His research and applied models have been widely adopted and he is an acclaimed speaker and featured presenter. His academic subject matter expertise is wide ranging and includes areas of intercultural communication, leadership, teamwork, communication assessment, persuasion, health communication, risk communication and advocacy. His more than 30 years of ground-breaking research into social scientific variables related to messages, comprehension, understanding, decision-making and human behavior has been applied in a wide range of practical applications and as solutions for fundamental challenges in both routine and extreme contexts. His focused research for communication and decision making during stress, high stress and hyper stress contexts has produced groundbreaking theoretical and practical applications. He is also a highly praised speaker and presenter, researcher, educator, accomplished trainer, and valued consultant.

Read more from Dr. Chandler:

Germs in the Workplace: Communicating Health Information for Wellness

Decision-Making and Communication Errors Blamed for Deadly Jet Crash

Do The Right Thing in Times of Disaster: A Lesson from the Louisiana Floods – Insights by Dr. Robert Chandler

Health Communication Priorities for Recent Rise in Mumps Outbreaks


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