The 3 tasks your brain must achieve
There’s no denying that security and close protection work is mentally and emotionally demanding. Life-threatening situations, exposure to graphic scenes, distressed individuals, violent perpetrators, and occupational stressors such as unsocial working hours and being away from home mean you need to be operating at peak levels of resilience.
Your body and brain respond to the regular threats you encounter with a sophisticated but innate reflex – your body instantly floods with stress hormones to maximise physical strength for fight or flight, senses become hyperalert and your brain focuses sharply on the most pertinent aspect of the cause of the danger.
You may be familiar with the processes involved in the survival response, but understanding the recovery process is equally important so that you are more likely to regain balance quickly and fully.
The powerful response to a threat needs to subside once that threat is gone so that the body and brain can regain a resilient state. We’d quickly burn out if this didn’t happen. For this to happen, 3 recovery tasks must be completed. Until these are achieved, many people will experience a reaction that can be unpleasant, disturbing or even potentially overwhelming.
The 3 recovery tasks following a threatening encounter are
- Switch off the alarm system
- Process the sensory data
- Protect against further threats
Task 1: Switch off the alarm system
The physical response to danger created by the stress hormones should naturally subside as the brain sounds the all-clear and switches off the alarm system. The hormones and bodily changes will gradually wear off, and this may take minutes, hours, days or even weeks depending on how long the subconscious brain takes to acknowledge the danger is over.
During this time, physical reactions will continue such as
- Raised heart rate and blood pressure
- Shallow breathing
- Pale or grey skin and cold sweats
- Irritability or anger (as an ongoing “fight” response)
- Disturbed sleep, inability to rest and digestive system problems
These are all signs that stress hormones continue to impact on the body. You can help your body to achieve this recovery task by taking exercise to burn off the hormones, reducing stimulants such as caffeine and alcohol and trying relaxation and breathing exercises to switch the relaxed (parasympathetic) nervous system back on.
Task 2: Process the sensory data
During the threat, your senses became hyperalert and your brain focused sharply but narrowly on the danger. Afterwards, there is a “back-log” of associated data that needs to be processed. In the recovery phase, the brain wants to make sense of what happened and learn how to survive future, similar threat. This process is how we build experience. Signs that your brain is attempting this task include
- Going through the “what ifs?” and the could have / should have scenarios
- Trying to apportion responsibility for what happened (even if this is in the form of guilt or self-blame) so that you can somehow avoid a repeat
- Thinking about the event when you don’t mean to
- Pictures intruding into your mind along with strong emotions or other sensory fragments such as sounds, tastes, smells
Allowing yourself time to reflect on the event or talking with trusted friends can help your brain to do what it needs to do. Some people find it helpful to write down their thoughts and feelings too in a secure, private diary.
Task 3: Protect against further threats
When we have been in a threatening event, it makes sense to avoid a repeat of the experience – not so easy in your line of work!
The subconscious brain will want us to avoid returning to the scene of danger and reminders of the event may lead to the alarm system being reactivated as a defence. This recovery task is closely linked to the other 2 – we don’t feel safe until the alarm is switched off and we have made sense of what happened. Until then, we may notice signs such as
- Feeling “wired” and ready for something to happen
- An exaggerated startle response and constantly looking out for danger
- Feeling a general unease or anxiety that you can’t quite settle
Your brain may also try to protect you from distressing memories and feelings. There is often an urge to avoid thoughts, conversations, activities, places and even people associated with what happened. You may find it hard to remember parts of the event or feel flat and low as numbing chemicals are produced in the body to dampen strong emotions.
Take small steps to rebuild confidence and a sense of safety. Continue with activities you used to enjoy even if you don’t now – fake it until you make it and the brain will slowly catch up with you.
All these tasks are part of the human survival response and are designed to balance ongoing safety with recovery.
Sometimes recovery gets stuck
In the vast majority of cases, the reaction will subside over time and, as mentioned before, this may take a few hours or a few days. However, sometimes regaining balance can take a little longer or may even get stuck.
Reasons for this include the fact that you may continue to be exposed to threats before the recovery has been completed – a particular risk in this occupation. Building resilience and being proactive with helpful recovery strategies gives you a faster bounce-back so can help.
Sometimes we just can’t make sense of events as there aren’t any or our brain’s natural processing gets inhibited by high-stress levels, so struggles to complete this task.
If we feel out of control of ourselves because of the way we are reacting then this will be perceived as another threat by the brain and we get into a vicious circle of spiralling stress. This is why learning about traumatic stress reactions is so important as it gives you control.
It is important to remember that what affects one person may not affect another. We are all affected by different things at different times of our lives.
When to seek professional advice
There’s a lot you can do to ease the process along, but it’s equally important to know when to seek professional advice.
My rule of thumb for this is to consider “Safety, Intensity and Duration.”
Safety may be compromised where levels of anger turn into aggression or even rage. Stress hormones can lead to a lack of focus or concentration which may be a problem in a role that requires these skills to be sharp. Individuals may self-medicate with alcohol or drugs – in an attempt to deal with overwhelming feelings and memories – or take excessive risks that put themselves or others in danger.
The intensity of reactions can leave people feeling out of control as if they are going mad. Symptoms such as extreme anxiety about self or loved ones, panic, nightmares or flashbacks can be very distressing but anything that means we can’t function as usual in our daily lives merits seeking further advice.
There should be small but steady signs of improvement in the days following the event but if the duration of symptoms continues beyond around 4 weeks, again it would be useful to get additional guidance on how to reduce them.
All the clinical evidence shows that the earlier support is obtained for “stuck” or slow recoveries, the faster the person can get back on track and regain their balance.
The 3 tasks your brain must achieve
By: Dr Liz Royle
KRTS International is an international trauma consultancy and training company that works with organisations to prepare for, and respond to, crisis and trauma in the workplace.