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Life-shattering events: The debriefing debate

Recent debate over the effectiveness of psychological debriefing following trauma has sparked some interesting opinions, discusses Dr Stan Steindl, director of Psychology Consultants.

Having completed his PhD in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Dr Stan Steindl said there is significant debate among researchers as to the efficacy of psychological debriefing immediately following a traumatic event. Some analysts even believe that providing immediate debriefing routinely may actually cause harm to some of the people involved.

Psychological debriefing or critical incident debriefing is a meeting with people affected by an incident, not a therapy session per se. It aims to give participants an opportunity to discuss what has happened, allow expression of emotions, and understand what are ‘normal’ reactions to trauma.

However, according to recent research this may not help everyone. “Many survivors of a traumatic event, such as disaster, assault or accident, do not go on to develop PTSD.”

“It has been suggested that, for these people, too much discussion or information may do them more harm than good,” Stan said.

“Debriefing does allow people who want it to ask questions and obtain answers,” Stan said, “And as such we provide a voluntary ‘diffusing’ service that provides trauma victims with emotional support and practical advice without burdening them with too much information or the vicariously traumatic experiences of others affected.”

Such a diffusing process also allows for the early assessment of posttraumatic stress symptoms, which can then be used to guide future psychological intervention such as CBT where necessary.

“There are many symptoms that are common and normal reactions to traumatic events. These will generally lessen over a number of weeks.”

Emotional symptoms include:

fear, anger, frustration, wanting to escape, anxiety, disbelief, irritability, sadness, depression, helplessness, and feelings of guilt and shame.

Cognitive symptoms include:

intrusive thoughts, bad dreams, nightmares, and vivid recall of events.

Physical symptoms include:

being easily startled, dizziness, difficult breathing, heart palpitations, tension, fatigue, and hyperactivity.

Behavioural symptoms include:

having trouble making decisions, withdrawal, angered, sleep problems, mood swings, poor concentration, and increased use of alcohol or drugs.

“Assessing for these symptoms early and providing follow-up care for those who need it is a recommended course of action,” said Stan.

Quite apart from professional support trauma victims can help themselves.

Helping yourself

  • Acknowledge the trauma.
  • Seek support if you need it.
  • Exercise, eat well, and rest.
  • Reduce your substance use, especially if you find they are ‘numbing’ your feelings.
  • Help others if you think it may help you cope.
  • Write about your feelings.

Psychology Consultants psychologists are experienced in providing individual, group and corporate debriefing sessions. Please contact us for further information.

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