A critical incident is any sudden or unexpected traumatic event that affects people’s emotional lives, feelings of safety and ability to cope. It might be a robbery or assault that occurred in the workplace, a sudden accident or death at work, the murder or suicide of a coworker, or domestic abuse that affects the workplace. Hostage-takings, floods, fires, hurricanes, acts of violence, and airplane crashes are other examples of critical incidents.

If you have recently experienced a critical incident, you may be feeling a number of emotions. You may be feeling sad, upset, afraid, angry or alone. You may have trouble concentrating, or feel overwhelmed by your emotions. All of these feelings are normal reactions to traumatic events. What’s important to remember at this difficult time is that there are steps you can take to seek support for yourself and find help.

Common reactions after a traumatic event

If you have experienced a critical incident or traumatic event, you may be affected for days, weeks or even months afterwards. At first, it’s normal to feel overwhelmed by the event. You may have difficulty sleeping, feel distracted, and feel afraid or unsafe. You may experience symptoms of stress.

The signs and symptoms of stress can be physical, mental or emotional.

Physical symptoms: 

  • Nausea
  • Upset stomach
  • Tremors in your lips or hands
  • Feeling uncoordinated
  • Profuse sweating
  • Chills
  • Diarrhea
  • Dizziness
  • Rapid heart beat
  • Head and muscle aches
  • Chest pain (chest pain should be checked at a hospital immediately)

Emotional symptoms:

  • Anxiety
  • Fear
  • Guilt

    Other symptoms:

  • Grief
  • Depression
  • Sadness and crying
  • Anger
  • Irritability
  • Shock
  • Loss or abandonment
  • Numbness
  • Isolation or feeling alone
  • Worry about others
  • Wanting to hide
  • Wanting to limit contact with others

Mental symptoms can include:

  • Slowed thinking
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty with problem-solving
  • Confusion
  • Disorientation (especially about place and time)
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Memory problems
  • Difficulty naming common objects
  • Distressing dreams
  • Poor attention span

 What you can do?

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important that you take steps to help yourself cope and recover.

  • Have someone stay with you for at least a few hours after the critical incident.
  • Realize that what you are experiencing is normal. You may feel fear, shock, anger, confusion, or depression. These feelings are normal, and will usually ease with time.
  • Avoid comparing yourself with others – everyone is different and reacts differently to a traumatic event.
  • Avoid using alcohol or non-prescription drugs to handle your emotions.

Coping skills

  • Don’t try to fight reoccurring thoughts, dreams or flashbacks. They are normal and they will decrease over time and become less painful. Dreaming of the incident is common. There may be times when you think or feel that the incident is recurring, sometimes like a ‘mini-flashback.’
  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible. Staying with normal routines will help you recover from a critical incident.
  • Use company resources to help you through this difficult time. Ask your supervisor or human resources (HR) representative about company resources for people coping with a critical incident.
  • Take care of yourself. You may be more vulnerable to illness or fatigue when coping with a traumatic event. Eat nutritious food and drink plenty of water, even when you don’t feel like it.
  • Physical activity of any kind helps relieve stress.
  • Use a relaxation technique that works for you. You might find help from yoga, meditation or some other relaxation technique.
  • Be alert for signs that you may need help coping, such as becoming teary all the time.

 Find support around you!

  • Talk about your feelings with co-workers, your manager, family, or friends. Don’t try to hide or ignore your emotions.
  • Consider seeing a counsellor if your feelings become prolonged, or if you are having trouble coping.