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Your Well Being

Identifying Traumatic stress

# Journalists and human rights defenders do difficult and challenging work, and see a good deal of human misery. We may even be fearful for our lives at times.
# It is therefore important to know how to react following a traumatic event, and how to recognise the symptoms of traumatic stress.
Any event which is very distressing and outside of the realm of normal human experience can result in traumatic stress. Such a response is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.
Traumatic stress usually produces a very intense response, including fear and/or helplessness, which may overwhelm the individual’s coping mechanisms.



Every person has a level of challenge or threat that stimulates them to a point of maximum productivity and well-being.

Benefits of stress

If there is not enough stimulation and challenge in our lives, we feel bored and become unproductive, even depressed.

Too much is overwhelming

If there is too much challenge or threat, we start to become overwhelmed.

A natural response

When we feel overwhelmed by the challenges in our work and home lives, or when we have been working too hard, for too long and without enough rest, our bodies naturally start to behave differently.

Rest is important

Stress and fatigue can result in us identifying and responding to threats in the wrong way. If you are exhausted, burnt out or depressed, you are unlikely to be as secure or effective as you would be if you were healthier or better rested.

Self care is empowering

Being sensitive towards ourselves and handling our emotional and physical vulnerabilities with care may contribute to our security as much as it might prove a source of inspiration and power.


Dealing with trauma

Any person whose work exposes them to many stories and pictures of traumatic events is at an increased risk of indirect exposure to traumatic stress.

Professions where trauma is common

This includes psychologists, counselors, journalists, nurses, paramedics, as well as police officers and other emergency personnel.

Two-pronged emotional risk

The emotional risk is two-pronged: burnout and vicarious traumatization.


Burnout refers to long-term exhaustion caused by working too hard, for too long, and without sufficient support. It has been linked to a range of emotional and physical health problems, as well as poor performance in the workplace.

What causes burnout

While exposure to threats or trauma is not a necessary feature of burnout, more emotionally demanding responsibilities place workers at greater risk.

Preventing burnout

The prevention of burnout requires a two-part strategy. The prevention of burnout is a shared responsibility between you and your employer.

1. Organisational prevention of burnout

Organizations must ensure a healthy work environment; appropriate levels of training, supervision, and support; reachable expectations and targets; as well as regular vacation time.

2. Personal prevention of burnout

You should educate yourself of the risks of burnout, monitor your own emotional health, and actively sustain your own emotional health.

Dealing with burnout

If you are suffering from burnout , the key to recovery is rest. It is essential that the you take time away from work to recover their emotional health.

Preventing future recurrence

During this period, it is important to examine and redesign the work situation that led to the problem in the first place. In addition, stress management training might help prevent future recurrence.

Vicarious Traumatisation

Vicarious traumatisation refers to traumatic stress arising from exposure to the frightening experiences of others.

Symptoms of vicarious trauma

In most cases, vicarious traumatisation shares the features of the traumatic stress reaction relating to the stories that they have heard or the work they do.

Loss of faith in others

In some cases, vicarious traumatisation takes the form of a loss of faith in the essential goodness of others and a growing sense that one’s work is meaningless.

Preventing vicarious traumatisation

The prevention of vicarious traumatisation requires limiting exposure to distressing stories or increasing the capacity to process traumatic material.

Ongoing support

While the former may be difficult for many people due to the demands of their jobs, regular supervision and ongoing support is helpful for the latter.

Seek out counseling

If you are suffering from vicarious traumatisation, counseling is recommended. If you do not seek counseling, you might not make the most of your time off, resolve the vicarious trauma, or rest.

Dealing with post-traumatic stress

Improving naturally

It is normal to experience upsetting and confusing thoughts after a traumatic event, but in most people these will improve naturally over a few weeks.

Visit a doctor

If you are still having problems for weeks after the traumatic experience, or if symptoms are particularly troublesome, you should visit a doctor.

Mental health specialists

Your doctor may refer you to mental health specialists if they feel you would benefit from this treatment.

PTSD is temporary

PTSD can be successfully treated, even when it develops many years after a traumatic event. Treatment depends on the severity of symptoms and how soon they occur after the traumatic event.

Treatment options

  • Watchful waiting — waiting to see whether the symptoms improve without treatment
  • Psychological treatment — such as psychotherapy or trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CPT)
  • Antidepressant medication

Dealing with unfounded fears

Unfounded fears are normal

Stress, tiredness, fear, and experiencing previous trauma might inspire unfounded fears. Although this feeling is not desirable, it is natural - we all have unfounded fears at certain times.

Being aware of fears

You might feel the need for increased caution or be extremely suspicious of strangers, public figures, organisations, family, or friends. Being aware of this will help you find tools for checking your perception.

Checking your perception

We can do this through further research or through speaking with people we trust. We can also take steps to check our perceptions by speaking as a group or with our trusted allies, colleagues and friends.

Become informed

For example, fears of surveillance could be clarified by taking the time to learn or review the basics of how internet and mobile communication works.

Reduce misinformation

Doing so can reduce our anxiety or unfounded fears which may arise from misinformation, myths and mysteries associated with digital technology and electronic surveillance.


Fear is natural

Our survival response as humans is hardwired into special structures within our brains designed to drive our reactions to danger. We can call these special structures the “survival brain,” and the start-up mechanism for the survival brain is fear.

Activating our "fear button"

When our "fear buttons" are pressed, our bodies are preparing to enact our instinctual responses to danger. Your body will react in one of seven ways:

1. Freeze

This response involves a person becoming utterly still—although highly alert—and ready for action. The strategy is to escape notice until the danger has passed.

1. Freeze

A great example would be of a bank robbery in which a customer stands quietly in the corner, thereby managing to avoid the robbers’ unwanted attention.

2. Flight

This response is the strategy that puts as much distance as possible between us and danger. In the bank robbery example, we might imagine a customer who leaps over a desk and breaks down a door to get away.

2. Flight

You might experience this in your work when sources or colleagues stop listening to you, evading or changing the subject, talking to a neighbor, or crack inappropriate jokes.

3. Comply

This response involves completely submitting to the aggressor in the hopes that cooperation will result in the attack ending quickly and without injury.

3. Comply

In the bank robbery example, this could be an employee who assists the robbers in opening the safe, packing up the money, and escaping.

3. Comply

In your work, you may see this with people participating in something they find particularly uncomfortable. They do this in the mindset that if they just cooperate they will get through it quickly and will then be able to move on to less distressing work.

4. Tend and Befriend

This response aims to ensure survival by getting closer to other human beings. We protect and care for those who are injured and more vulnerable, and we try to build relationships with those who are stronger and can protect and care for us.

4. Tend and befriend

In extreme cases we might even try to befriend an aggressor—commonly referred to as Stockholm Syndrome.

4. Tend and befriend

In the bank robbery situation, an instance where a customer draws children together, comforts and quiets them so as to reduce the danger is perfect example of this response method.

4. Tend and befriend

In doing so, she gains the respect and gratitude of the parents in the room. Should violence ensue, it is more likely those parents will act to protect and care for her.

4. Tend and befriend

At the heart of this response is the fact that human beings are social creatures and we draw together in times of danger.

4. Tend and befriend

In your work, you may see this with colleagues becoming overly concerned for each other’s well-being—a sign that they themselves might be experiencing distress.

5. Posture

This response is an attempt to drive off the danger by pretending to have greater physical strength than one actually does.

5. Posture

Going back to the bank robbery, a manager may confront the robbers with the lie that a silent alarm has been activated and the police are on their way.

5. Posture

In your work, you may see this with colleagues becoming argumentative and obstructive in order to undermine the authority of the trainer.

6. Fight

This response is the strategy of destroying or driving off the threat by attacking.

6. Fight

In the bank robbery situation, this would involve one or more people physically attacking the robbers, with or without weapons.

6. Fight

In your work, you might see this by a colleague being blamed for or even insulting another colleague for distress they are experiencing.

7. Dissociation

The Dissociation Response is characterized by the slowing of heart rate and breathing, a drop in blood pressure, and the person feeling calm and disconnected from the frightening reality in which they find themselves.

7. Dissociation

In the situation of the bank robbery, we might imagine a customer starting to giggle inappropriately or merely drifting off into a dreamlike state.

7. Dissociation

You might see this in your work if someone experiencing great distress becomes emotionally disconnected or inappropriate. Uncontrollable laughter when nothing is funny or daydreaming may both be signs of dissociation.

7. Dissociation

Dissociation is a sign of serious traumatization.

Identifying chronic stress

Healthy levels of stress

With healthy levels of stress, symptoms are generally mild and temporary - people return to functioning when the stress factor is removed.

Chronic stress

If exposure to stress is excessive or long-term however, symptoms can persist and multiply, resulting in chronic or cumulative stress.

Chronic stress and burnout

Chronic stress builds slowly and may be hard to notice in yourself or others. If not properly managed, chronic stress can lead to burnout.

A common problem

Chronic stress occurs regularly among journalists and human rights defenders, yet often goes unrecognised or unreported.

Hard to deal with problems

Not only is chronic stress harmful for the body physically and mentally, it can also can make it hard to deal with daily problems.

Dealing with chronic stress

Stress management

Stress management is an individual process. There is no one best set of techniques. For stress management to be effective, it must be include techniques that work best for each person.

Take care of yourself

It is important to recognise that is it is impossible to take care of others if you do not take care of yourself.

Learn about stress.

Be aware of the signs and symptoms of stress.

Know yourself

Learn to observe your feelings and attitudes before trying to control your behaviour.

Eat well and exercise

Establish a regular exercise program and stick to it. Beneficial exercise includes deep breathing and muscle relaxation exercises. Keep a healthy diet and eat regularly.

Get rest and relaxation

Get adequate, regular sleep. Maintain your normal routines for relaxation, such as hobbies, reading, etc.

Practice belief systems

Maintain spiritual health consistent with your personal beliefs.

Maintain a sense of humour

Try to have contact with others outside of the work environment to maintain perspective

Be informed

Knowledge of the work situation and environment provides an effective way of checking rumours and immediately addressing concerns.

Talk to others

Sharing a problem with others may help you find a solution and will make you feel less isolated. If unable to talk to others about your feelings, keep a journal or diary or write letters.

Change a stressful environment as much as possible

Refuse to see yourself as a helpless victim of circumstance. When faced with a difficult situation, identify the problem, think of alternative, evaluate the alternatives, and finally select and implement the best alternative.

Think positive!

Identifying trauma

Trauma stress is common

Journalists and human rights defenders do difficult and challenging work, and see a good deal of human misery. We may even be fearful for our lives at times.

Recognise symptoms

It is therefore important to know how to react following a traumatic event, and how to recognise the symptoms of traumatic stress.

Normal reaction to abnormal situation

Any event which is very distressing and outside of the realm of normal human experience can result in trauma. Such a response is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation.

How you respond

Trauma usually produces a very intense response, including fear and/or helplessness, which may overwhelm the individual’s coping mechanisms.

Effects of trauma

Immediate numbness

At the time you experience a traumatic event, you might feel numb and unable to respond.


Immediately after a traumatic event, it is common to feel shocked, or dazed, or unable to process your own feelings.

Other feelings

Over several hours or days, the feelings of shock and denial gradually fade, and other thoughts and feelings take their place.

Trauma is strong

People react differently and take different amounts of time to come to terms with a traumatic event. Even so, you may be surprised by the strength of your feelings.


Frightened — that the same thing will happen again, or that you might lose control of your feelings and break down


Helpless - that something really bad happened and you could do nothing about it.


Angry — about what has happened and with whoever was responsible


Guilty — that you have survived when others have suffered or died


Sad - particularly if people were injured or killed, especially someone you knew.


Ashamed or embarrassed — that you have these strong feelings you can’t control, especially if you need others to support you


Relieved - that danger is over and that the danger has gone.


Hopeful - that your life will return to normal. People can start to feel more positive about things quite soon after a trauma.


Strong feelings affect your physical health. In the weeks after a trauma, you may find that you:

  • Cannot sleep
  • Feel very tired
  • Dream a lot and have nightmares


  • Have poor concentration
  • Have memory problems
  • Have difficulty thinking clearly
  • Suffer from headaches


  • Experiences change in appetite
  • Experiences changes in sex-drive or libido
  • Have aches and pains
  • Feel that your heart is beating faster.


    It may take weeks for some of these feelings and symptoms to pass. Remember that these are normal reactions to extreme circumstances. They are not signs that you are weak or sick.

Dealing with traumatic

Use your own strategy

Everyone has natural ways of coping. Use your own positive coping strategies to feel stronger and regain a sense of control.

Possible strategies

Adapt the following suggestions to take account of what is possible after the crisis.

Use positive coping strategies

  • Get enough rest
  • Eat as regularly as possible and drink water
  • Talk and spend time with family and friends.

    Use positive coping strategies

  • Discuss problems with someone you trust.
  • Do activities that help you relax (walk, sing, pray, play with children).
  • Do physical exercise
  • Find safe ways to help others in the crisis and get involved in community activities.

    Avoid negative coping strategies

  • Don’t take drugs, smoke or drink alcohol
  • Don’t sleep all day
  • Don’t work all the time without any rest or relation

    Avoid negative coping strategies

  • Don't isolate yourself from friends and loved ones.
  • Don’t neglect basic personal hygiene
  • Don’t be violent

    Weeks and months after

    Keep an eye out for changes in your personal attitude (depression, frustration, etc.) as these may be signs of longer-term post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Identifying post-traumatic stress

PTSD is common

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) develops in about 1 in 3 people who experience severe trauma.

Factors that increase PTSD

Certain factors can make you more susceptible to developing PTSD after a traumatic event. These include if you or your family have had depression or anxiety in the past, or if you don’t receive much support from family or friends.

When PTSD occurs

In most cases, PTSD develops during the first month after a traumatic event. However, in a minority of cases, there may be a delay of months or even years before symptoms start to appear.

Effects of post-traumatic stress

Symptoms vary widely

The specific symptoms of PTSD can vary widely between people, but generally fall into the following categories:

Severe and persistent

These symptoms are often severe and persistent and enough to have a significant impact on your day-to-day life.


Re-experiencing is the most typical symptom of PTSD. This is when you involuntarily and vividly re-lives the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks, nightmares or repetitive and distressing images or sensations.

Physical sensations

This can even include physical sensations such as pain, sweating and trembling or negative thoughts about your experience.


Trying to avoid being reminded of the traumatic event is another key symptom of PTSD.

Coping with distractions

This usually means avoiding certain people or places that remind you of the trauma, or avoiding talking to anyone about your experience. Many people with PTSD try distraction themselves with work or hobbies.

Becoming withdrawn

Some people attempt to deal with their feelings by trying not to feel anything at all, which can lead you to becoming isolated and withdrawn.

Feeling on edge

Someone with PTSD may be very anxious and find it difficult to relax. You might feel constantly aware of threats and easily startled.


This state of mind is known as hyper-arousal. Hyper-arousal often leads to irritability, angry outburst, sleeping problems (insomnia) and difficulty concentrating.

Other effects

  • depression, anxiety and phobias
  • drug misuse or alcohol misuse
  • headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach aches
  • PTSD sometimes leads to work-related problems and the breakdown of relationships.

Your well-being

Learn about ensuring your short and long term well-being.

Learn about

stress and security

dealing with shocking events


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