One of the things I’m often asked by security personnel suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is “Why has this affected me so much?” They may have been working at the sharp end for many years and never had any issues or have dealt with much worse in the past.
This sentiment is echoed by some of the security managers I work with who don’t understand why a comparatively minor event has been psychologically devastating for a normally resilient member of their team. Or where the majority of a protection team is fine but one or two are subsequently perceived as weak, malingering or not up to the job.
How can some people walk away from a traumatic event and seem completely unaffected yet others find the same event traumatizing?
The magnitude and duration of the event will inevitably be factors in how people are affected. People may also be particularly affected if they:
- Were at direct risk of harm (or felt that they were).
- Were very close to an affected person or situation.
- Have suffered other losses or bereavement recently, or unresolved ones in the past.
- Were already depressed, anxious or stressed.
- Could identify with the person or situation, for example, an injured person is/was the same age as them or a significant other.
However, in addition to the diverse events that can prove potentially traumatic, we are all individuals, unique in our life history, and the experience of an event and interpretation of it. Therefore, we will also vary in our levels of reactions to it.
For the most part, we judge a person’s reaction based on how we think we would react in those circumstances. As human beings, we all make these initial judgments. These will be based on our own life experience, knowledge of the person, and the situation, and things such as our own needs and pressures.
In the real world though, we will only ever have a fraction of the understanding required to make that judgment.
There are many factors that can either help protect or increase the risk of us being affected. Some of these will fluctuate over the course of our life and even within a small period of time.
7 Factors that can increase or decrease vulnerability to Trauma
1. Social support systems (and our ability to use them)
Human beings are social animals. Having a supportive network of family, friends, and colleagues is an effective way of relaxing, having a good work/life balance, maintaining our mental health and generally feel good about ourselves. This is vital to our emotional and mental resilience. It’s equally important to be able to use those support networks when we have a need to. If someone sees themselves as the person that everyone else goes to for help, they may find it challenging to ask for support.
2. Confidence in our occupational role
If we feel confident in our operational role and in what we are doing, then the work setting itself is less threatening. We are also more likely to go on automatic pilot and follow safety procedures during the incident. If we are relatively new, less confident or feel training hasn’t yet provided us with the necessary skills, then this can feed a sense of vulnerability and uncertainty. Working in the security industry, even as an experienced operator, you will often find yourself in unknown situations, trying to combat hidden threats.
3. Previous traumatic events
This is a double-edged sword. There are few people who haven’t experienced distressing and challenging events in life, often in our earlier years. A current event may reactivate trauma that we thought was resolved – a bit like opening an old wound. However, past trauma can also leave us feeling stronger, wiser and with more faith that we can overcome challenges. This can then help us to recover from current incidents.
4. Self-care strategies
We all have ways of coping with life. Some of them are helpful – exercise, relaxing – others less so – alcohol, avoiding dealing with issues! After a critical incident, we will need to use as many coping self-care strategies as we can in order to recover. The more we have of the helpful variety, the better so the range and effectiveness of our self-care techniques is an important factor in both recovery and resilience.
5. Beliefs about ourselves and our capabilities:
Just as feeling competent in an operational role is important, so is a general sense of our capabilities. Higher self-esteem can be protective but also potentially increases the risks of beliefs being shattered – another double-edged sword!
6. Current stress levels
You know the feeling when you are dealing with several demands and then one more thing happens and it seems overwhelming? Well, if that one thing is a critical incident then chances are we will be hit harder by it than we would have been.
7. Physical health
When we are physically unwell, whether it is a temporary or chronic condition, our resilience dips. Just as with stress levels, our physical health fluctuates and can affect our overall mood and ability to “bounce back”.
It’s important to recognise that these factors fluctuate and how you rate today may change tomorrow. Monitoring them will help you to become aware of, and address, the inevitable dips in your resilience and maintain maximum protection. It may also give some insights into why others reacted as they did.
Often, during the course of treatment for PTSD, the person recognizes which factors played a part in their particular event and this can be very empowering. They can replace their own feelings of shame or weakness with an understanding of the complexities of what happened and this usually helps in their recovery.
As with everything to do with traumatic stress, knowledge is power.
Why this has affected me so much?
By: Dr. Liz Royle
Dr. Liz Royle is an international speaker and author who specialises in providing psychological trauma consultancy and training for high-risk organisations. She was a founder Board member for the UK Psychological Trauma Society and leads the Uniformed Services Task Force on behalf of the European Society for Traumatic Stress Studies. For more information, go to: