This information explains how to work with people who have been affected by an emergency, and also how look after your own emotional health at the same time.
Emergencies pose threats to people, their property and environment. In dangerous situations, uncertainty becomes a threat in itself and results in affected people becoming highly emotional.
Emotional arousal in emergencies
Being under threat puts the body into an instinctive survival state. It increases chances of survival by mobilising reserves of physical, mental and emotional energy. This is a state of heightened arousal and activates whatever functions the person needs to survive. Awareness of threatening aspects of the environment are heightened at the expense of reassuring features, or placing threats in context.
Why people become anxious or angry
- Survival-oriented activity relieves tension by acting to reduce threat - an aroused person has increased energy, strength, perception and emotional toughness
- Tension may be changed into anxiety or fearfulness - this can be accompanied with uncertainty, need for reassurance or guidance, tearfulness, trembling, lack of confidence, reliance on others, difficulty thinking clearly or making decisions
- Anxiety undermines a person’s sense of their competence - it is a threat in itself that keeps arousal up and leads to a need for reassurance that may not be available
- Tension may be released as anger - anger is a survival emotion that increases certainty (often unrealistically) by finding a focus and assigning blame and responsibility. Since anger at natural forces, God or the weather is not effective, anger is directed to people with responsibility instead.
Expressions of anger
Aggression and anger avoid the disabling effects of anxiety and enhance short term survival by focussing on the threat. There is a search for someone to blame and take responsibility, even if unrealistic.
Simplistic ideas of cause and effect, focussing on one aspect of a complex situation and assuming it could have turned out differently are used to justify anger and blame.
Angry people are more concerned about venting their anger than knowing facts.
Angry and anxious people may see rational discussion as avoidance, a cover-up or ducking responsibility.
Reducing anger and anxiety
Anxiety is reduced by reassurance and certainty about what is unknown.
If people cannot be given information to reduce their anxiety, then any certainty that can be given will help. Information about assistance (accommodation, financial needs, communication with family) reduce arousal. Emotional support helps a person tolerate anxiety.
The angry person is focused on the threat. They want action to satisfy their grievance. This is usually not possible and their understanding may not be objective. Do not give justifications or retaliate for unfair accusations. This further aggravates the anger, frustrates discharge of emotion and heightens tension, but does not reduce the threat.
Anger is reduced if either the threat is reduced or if emotion can be expressed with emotional support.
Impact of anger on workers
When working with people affected by an emergency, delayed reactions and cumulative stress reactions can build up. For your own emotional health, this needs to be prevented. Support from colleagues who understand your work is the best assistance.
No matter how well conversations with angry or anxious people are managed, anyone with concern for others and commitment to their job feels an impact. It is important to offload the anger absorbed to prevent it lingering or building up so you are not left with it. Describing what was unfair, insulting, worrying or evoked sympathy helps to you to debrief. There may be many more conversations before the emergency is over.
Support such as demobilisation or peer support sessions are best organised by management as part of operational routine, or arranged at the end of the shift. If reactions linger, a debriefing may enable the person to identify the reason and let it go.