Crisis Stress: Part 3 – Psychological and Cognitive Effects

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In the first two parts of this essay series (Crisis Stress: Part 1 – How and Why A Crisis Affects People and Crisis Stress: Part 2 – Acute Stress Response (ASR)), I briefly summarized some of the ways in which people, including the crisis manager, are affected by a crisis in terms of physiological reactions, touching upon the Acute Stress Response (ASR). In this part 3 essay, I will cover some (but not all) of the various psychological and cognitive effects of such stress.

There is considerable evidence of psychological and cognitive performance changes when we are under crisis stress. When we confront a dangerous, threatening or critical situation we have a rapid physical response before we even fully comprehend or understand what is happening. However, we also begin the emotional and cognitive processes of appraisal and assessment of the situation. Not everyone reacts to situations in the same way, nor to the same degree, and not at the precise same sequence. For most of us, we start with high levels of uncertainty and ambiguity (e.g. we initially hear “firecrackers” rather than “gunshots”). We struggle to grasp to understand (make meaningful) what is happening and define it. Is this a danger? Is the danger real? Have I been in this situation before? If so, how did I cope? If not, what should I do? Is help available? What are others doing? Is there a vulnerable person who needs my help? Should I act? The first major psychological aspect of experiencing crises is coping with uncertainty, ambiguity and behavioral actions.Emergency Room sign

Furthermore, much like the ASR process changes you physically, the mind’s psychological response to crises results in cognitive changes as well. Partly because of the rapid physiological changes in response to a crisis event, and partly as an emotional and cognitive process variable, people change the way that they perceive, process stimuli, listen, think, recall, decide, remember, speak and behave during and after crises. We know that there are also shifts in cognitive load capacity (underloading and overloading working memory thresholds), baseline/peak use of these cognitive load capacities, linguistic and vocabulary changes, temporal processing, and the information sufficiency threshold for decision making during and after crises. Some studies have found that those in crisis distress may experiencing debilitating fear, paralyzing confusion, and inability to function at tasks for which they held the necessary skills and abilities.

Psychological and cognitive symptoms of crisis stress also include diminished intellectual functioning, mental distortions and misinterpretations of situational variables, events, messages and non-verbal interpersonal communication. Other aspects include diminished concentration or mental focus (sustained attention to a task or decision). In addition, research shows that during high and hyper stress contexts that individuals demonstrate unproductive patterns of thinking, poor judgement, bad decision making and increased indecisiveness. Research has also found that some people are easily distracted from critical tasks, inattentive, belligerent, impatient, and easily irritated. Further, short and long-term memory recall can be impaired and a decrease in the ability to form new memories during the high stress contexts.

Psychological Trauma

Emotional and psychological trauma may also be the result of extraordinarily stressful crisis events. These experiences may involve a threat to life or safety, but any situation that leaves one feeling overwhelmed and isolated can potentially be traumatic, even if it doesn’t involve physical danger. Coping with the high stress of a crisis, emergency or natural disaster can present unique challenges—even if you were not directly involved in the event. In fact, research suggests that reports and/or images on social media and news sources of disasters, terrorism or horrific crimes may be sufficient to cause psychological trauma in viewers, particularly if the viewers identify in some way with those who have suffered from such events.

Psychological trauma is a type of damage to the mind that occurs because of a severely stressful event. It may be a result of an overwhelming amount of stress that exceeds one’s resilience to manage or tolerate. However, psychological trauma differs between individuals, according to their subjective experiences. People can react to similar events quite differently and not everyone reacts in the same patterns or sequences.

Crisis managers and emergency responders themselves face a potential for stress-induced ill effects, including two unique factors: 1. persistent occupational chronic stress and 2. high or hyper stress traumatic events. Further, there may be special occupational contextual triggers of psychological trauma for crisis managers and emergency response. These trigger risks may include:

  • Interactions with disaster survivors and bereaved family members
  • Adverse work environments such as uncomfortable or toxic environments or exposure to adverse conditions
  • Intense public scrutiny pressure and high expectations to resolve the crisis
  • Heightened media attention and scrutiny
  • Being unprepared for multiagency, multi-jurisdictional operations
  • Worry associated with knowledge of the dangers
  • Worry or fear for the safety of one’s family
  • Witness to intentional injury or harm specially to children
  • Prolonged intense recovery work such as searching for human remains
  • Intense emotional interactions with bereaved coworker family members

Such psychological trauma may persist long after a crisis has ended.

In part 4 of this essay series I will cover some of the recent research on diminished memory and recall abilities during crises.

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