May 08, 2017
Even the best team leaders have moments of wondering if their team is really ready for the next critical incident. In the line of duty, whether it be public-safety like law enforcement or emergency response, or an industry with potential for dangerous accidents like construction or oil & gas, there will be the inevitable critical incident on the job. These can result in physical injury or even fatality, but also in a more difficult to detect, and often long-lasting, other type of injury.
Post-Action Strategic Debriefing addresses a critical incident immediately after, using a process devised from several different proven techniques - the military's after-action review, critical incident stress debriefing, and counseling & therapy intervention techniques. This process focuses on preventing trauma effects from the incident as well as creating positive momentum for the team to be stronger, more united and more mentally healthy following the incident.
More importantly, though, is being prepared for an incident. We all know and understand how important good physical health can be when facing a physical difficulty. Someone who is exhausted and weak, possibly ill, will not be able to fight off an attacker like another who is strong, well, and in good, conditioned, physical health. Mental health and emotional health are equally important, and it is widely believed that the three are closely related and affect each other. Someone who is mentally unhealthy, such as having a stress disorder or addiction, will also most likely have related physical illness (ulcers, liver illness, etc.) as well as emotional illness.
The best way to get your team, and the individuals on it, best prepared for any type of oncoming attack is to get them healthy. Physical health and strength are important. Mental health follows the same guidelines, but deals with mental capacity and the brain's ability to function well. If someone is able to think fairly clearly, cope with regular life situations, including stressors and challenges, be flexible with his thinking, and solve basic problems by thinking of viable solutions, then he is probably considered to be in a good state of mental health. Based on these guidelines, we can also understand the meaning of emotional health. If someone is able to function well emotionally, this means they are in good control of their emotions, and also the behavior that frequently accompanies our emotions. If a life challenge arises, an emotionally healthy person will manage his emotions through the challenge, and then will have some resilience and bounce back to his normal emotional level pretty quickly after the challenge is resolved.
We know how to strengthen our bodies physically. How do we strengthen mental and emotional health? It's important to try to achieve a balance by lowering stress and increasing positive activities. Participating in positive activities like exercise, fun, hobbies, doing good deeds for others, taking the time to enjoy family and friends, and positive thinking overall. Positive activities like these can release endorphins (chemicals) into your system, aiding your ability to feel less pain and to have controlled emotions.
Endorphins are chemicals that originate in different parts of the body like the brain and nervous system, the spinal cord, and the pituitary gland. They work as neurotransmitters, connecting to the opioid receptors in the brain that are mostly responsible for blocking pain and controlling emotion. These endorphins are naturally created by the body and work just like a narcotic such as heroin or morphine. The endorphins in the body are able to block pain, but also create feelings of pleasure.
It is believed that our neurotransmitters can be “trained” to connect better, helping us to be stronger emotionally, just like bodies can be trained physically to function better. The theory is that if one is depressed, emotionally imbalanced, negative, etc., the neurotransmitters are not connecting properly. Picture a spark between two items that just isn’t connecting – the spark misses the second item and never connects the two. This is how neuro transmitters work, sort of – when one is thinking positively and functioning in good mental and emotional health, the neurotransmitters are connecting. The training of these connections then is by purposely making the neurotransmitters connect, training them to then do this on their own. The more positive thoughts one focuses on, whether reading them, repeating them, or just continuously focusing on positives all day long, the more often the neurotransmitters are connecting. The more they connect, the more they learn to naturally connect.
The more endorphins released, and the better the neurotransmitters are connecting, the more mentally and emotionally healthy the individual. Not having good, strong emotional and mental health can affect an individual by making them more prone to illness, more susceptible to emotional outburst of anger, fear, irritability, etc. It can also lead to substance abuse, hopelessness, and a disintegration of relationships, jobs, and the ability to function normally in society. By strengthening the emotional and mental health, one becomes more resilient and better able to cope with stressors that arise. This makes for less unpredictability, better focus, and on the job, fewer accidents.
If your team is strong physically, mentally, and emotionally, they will better react and respond to any incident. But what about after the incident? How do you help your team avoid trauma after-effects? The Post-Action Strategic Debriefing workbook guides a team leader through the 5 post-action steps toward recovery and cohesion.
1. Gather together and discuss the trauma of the event that just occurred. The workbook has a script for leaders to use to explain what trauma is, how it occurs, and what effects it can have. This process brings the group together and helps them to know that any reactions they are having to the incident are normal and acceptable.
2. Expectations vs. Reality -- discuss what was supposed to happen, what actually happened, compare the two, and then discuss what was doing right and should be repeated in the future as well as what could be improved upon.
3. Positive Reframing - this is a process of story-telling where individuals tell their story of what happened, but learn to take out blame, anger, resentment by removing or editing small portions of the story, keeping all the facts intact, so that it is neutralized, and fact-based. This prevents resentment and lasting negative effects down the line.
4. Getting Back to Center - this part of the process helps the group come back together as a team, and creates a blank slate, a fresh start for going forward.
5. Follow-Up Plan -- the Post-Action Strategic Debriefing process is a first-aid type plan immediately following a critical incident. But long-term follow-up and care resources are discussed which need to be used by team members, to help prevent PTSD and other residual effects which will weaken the mental, physical, and emotional health. By using follow-up resources, the individuals circle back around to the preparedness stage by getting themselves strong in all 3 areas once again.
Mental and emotional wellness and strength are just as important as physical health and strength, and can be trained and prepared for in the same way. Seeking mental health resources after this type of incident should be viewed the same as an individual going to the doctor or hospital after being physically injured. Remind your team that the more they are willing to use resources, the stronger they will end up being as an individual as well as a valued team member.