Module 11.3 – Individual Adapting and Coping Strategies

When starting a challenging work assignment it is important to be aware that stress will be present at all stages of the work. Hostile Environments can expose everyone involved to traumatic, distressing sights, sounds and situations, as well as all of the chronic work stressors described above. Scenes of massive death and destruction, the suffering of survivors, and the intense pressure surrounding the rescue effort takes its toll.

Experienced humanitarian workers and security consultants offered the following suggestions to ease stress in the field.


Our work can be overwhelming. Our challenge is to maintain our resilience so that we can keep doing the work with professionalism, energy, and compassion.

10 things to do each day

  1. Get enough sleep
  2. Get enough to eat
  3. Vary the work that you do
  4. Do some light exercise
  5. Do something pleasurable
  6. Focus on what you did well
  7. Learn from your mistakes
  8. Share a private joke
  9. Relax
  10. Support a colleague


Your empathy for others helps you do your job.

It is important to take good care of your feelings by monitoring how your use them.

The most resilient workers are those that know how to turn their feelings off when they go on duty, but on again when they go off duty. This is not denial, it is coping strategy. It is a way they get maximum protection while working (feelings switched off) and maximum support while resting (feelings switched on).

How to become better at switching on and off

  1. Make this a conscious process. Talk to yourself as you switch.
  2. Use images that make you feel safe and protected (switch off) or connected and cared for (switch on) to help you switch.
  3. Develop rituals that help you switch as you start and stop work.
  4. Breathe slowly and deeply to calm yourself when starting a tough job

Finally, reflect on your experience and move on

Intense field assignments are rarely “over” upon departure from the site. After stressful deployments some people experience an elevated mood that lasts for days or weeks. Others find the let-down sudden and may go through a grieving process and feel depressed. For some, flashbacks and intrusive images of disturbing events bring anxiety and continued stress, making it hard to let go and move on to new activities. People may dwell on their performance, wishing they had been more effective. They may want to share what happened with those close to them or may find this painful. If after a few weeks discomfort persists, and you are still not able to return to your normal routine, you may need to seek professional help. Some organizations have staff welfare counsellors who can offer specialized assistance; otherwise you should obtain a referral for assistance from a qualified professional.

Many people find that once the assignment is over, life slowly returns to normal and with normality comes a sense of new beginning born of having survived a challenging and dangerous experience.

These people may be aware of new skills and competence acquired in coping with the disaster situation and feel satisfaction about this. Most people eventually accept the notion that such powerful experiences have positive as well as negative aspects and that memories of these become part of one’s life. They become accustomed to reactions surfacing from time to time in response to subsequent disturbing occurrences or on the anniversary of the disaster event. They accept what happened and their role in it, but focus on the future. They move on.