Firefighters, Policemen or EMTs are the first to arrive at the scene of a fire, an accident or a damage site. They save men, women and children from accidents, wrecks and sometimes hopeless situations. The stress perceived as burdensome includes, for example, the rescue of accident victims, especially of children or well-known persons. Also, when emergency personnel themselves are endangered or a related person is  seriously injured or even killed, this can be an extraordinary burden.

Specially trained units of rescue personnel can help those affected by extremely distressing events as they are part of the team, i.e. firefighters or EMTs and know about the daily work of medical professionals and can provide psychological help, to learn to get over the trauma.

Stress reactions and symptoms

Particularly distressing events are a major disruption of normal life. Suddenly affected people lose their daly routines.Immediately after such an event, many people experience strong emotions and reactions, such as

  • Helplessness
  • Fear
  • Despondency
  • Feelings of guilt for surviving the event, irrespective of whether justified or not
  • Emotional disarray
  • Disorientation, not knowing what to do
  • Incapacity of doing everyday chores
  • Speculation why the event happened

These and similar reactions are normal after an extremly distressing event. They are normal reactions to an “abnormal” event. Most people get over them during the next few days or weeks, but further disorders might happen during these times as

  • Severe nervousness
  • Sleeping disorders with or without nightmares
  • Persistent feeling of futility, hopelessness
  • Loss of interests
  • Memory gaps
  • Concentration problems
  • Stressful memories or images that “haunt” affected people and cannot be repressed
  • Physical stress reactions, such as loss of appetite and energy, unusual tiredness
  • Increased need for alcohol or tranquiliser

Theses reactions are only temporary and should fade out within weeks.

What can YOU do, if you are affected yourself

After experiencing a distressing event, it can be helpful to allow yourself a quiet period. Take your time to overcome and recover from what has happened. Other affected people also report relief if you

  • pay attention to your momentary needs and take time to meet them
  • are supported by your partner, your family and friends and do not hesitate to seek professional help
  • talk about your experiences with people who unterstand the situation
  • try not to suppress your feelings and reactions, as this will make it even worse
  • go back to activities you usually enjoy

When affected people want to talk about the experiences, make sure to listen. Take a lot of time and take their feelings seriously. Distressing events provoke corresponding reactions. These are normal and usually fade out after a while. Understanding family members and friends can help affected people to get over the distressing event faster.

Ager some exceptional events it is necessary to organize life again, like there is paperwork to do. Practical assistance with these tasks can also be very helpful. In principle, however, it is important to assist affected people so he/she can resume normal daily routine as soon as possible.

Often the affected people already feel better wehn he / she oi not left alone.

When you should seek for professional help?

Sometimes events are so distressing that professional help is advisable. Especially if the described reactions last for more than four weeks. Watch out for these signals:

  • Persistent sleeping disorder
  • Restlessness
  • Frequent unwanted memories of the event
  • Avoiding situations, locations or activities that are a reminder of the event
  • Constant apathy or lethargy, feeling “numb”
  • Increased consumption of alcohol and / or drugs
  • The condition may even make it impossible for the affected people to cope with daily routines, e.g. household chores or going to work regularly
  • Do take these signs seriously! Professional help can prevent negative after effects or chronic conditions.


Folder of the Bundesamt für Bevölkerungsschutz und Katastrophenschutz (Germany) Information for Affected People and their Families on Recommendations How To Handle Situations Of Distress

Folder of the Crisis & Care Intervention Team Vorarlberg (KIT Vorarlberg) and the acute Intervention team Vienna (ABW)

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