Module 11.2 – Some Basic Information about Stress

Stress is an interesting topic in security risk management as it can be thought of as a kind of threat as well as a vulnerability. Many field staff in developing their office risk matrixes include stress as a threat, to be either prevented or mitigated in their overall SRM approach. Most security officers prefer to categorize stress as a vulnerability—it is part of your individual security profile—but the important thing is that it is being considered and treated).

There are two types of stress to be concerned about in relation to staff welfare and security risk management—chronic stress and critical incident stress, both of these are common in insecure field situations, and both are represented by a wide range of effects from minor to severe.

Chronic stress (or cumulative stress) is defined as a state of prolonged tension from internal or external stressors, which may cause various physical manifestations, e.g., asthma, back pain, arrhythmias, fatigue, headaches, HTN (hypertension and high blood pressure), irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers, and immune system suppresion. In its minor forms, this stress is commonly seen everywhere, wherever people “just need a break.” In its most severe form it can be debilitating and even result in “burnout” and other serious conditions.

Critical Incident stress, traumatic stress, and post traumatic stress disorder represent the increasingly severe ranges of stress reactions resulting from involvement or witnessing of extreme situations of shock, horror, or grief. This type of stress is also common in insecure areas where field staff may witness chaos, conflict, death, and destruction, or even be the victims of attacks. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the extreme form of this condition and can be characterized by intense fear, feelings of helplessness, or horror. Typical symptoms include “flashbacks” or persistent images or memories of the traumatic event, avoidance of images or situations associated with traumatic incident, and lowered responsiveness to other stimuli. Such symptoms lasting more than one month, resulting in significant personal distress or impairment in social or work functioning.

What you need to know about chronic stress

There are a few points that everyone operating in insecure field environments needs to know about chronic stress. This list is not exhaustive, but it is important basic information for anyone involved in hostile environment work.

  • Stress is a normal part of life and it has an adaptive function. It generally helps us mobilize the energy needed to act upon new challenges from the environment. Stress loses its benefits for survival, and takes on a negative effect when:

– The challenges exceed our capacity to adapt in a given period of time.

– The challenges last for too long without a chance to recover.

  • Stress can be caused internally (by our own expectations, internal conflicts, guilt, feelings of failure, etc.) and externally (by outside pressures, poor living conditions, real-life conflict and chaos in the working environment).
  • Stress reactions occur in several different areas of our human makeup; emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioural and spiritual areas can all be affected.
  • Stress reactions vary widely in individuals—there is not one absolute common norm.
  • Stress management is not a one-time action; it is most efficient when practiced regularly. Stress is experienced in a wide variety of ways by different people, with differing results. It is generally known that individuals will react differently to stressors depending on various factors in their lives. Some important factors that will tend to help people adapt and cope with stress better than others include:
  • Positive previous experiences with stress, i.e. they have successfully managed stressful situations in the past.
  • Wider repertoire of coping skills— they have different interests or avenues for dealing with stress such as interest in reading, music, exercise, or other activities.
  • Personality profile that accepts stress rather than either denying or surrendering to stress.
  • General level of well-being (physical fitness, emotional maturity).
  • Support from the environment and social support.

These supportive factors suggest many options for managing our own stress, as well as helping colleagues and staff members with their stress.