On guard against PTSD

Your role as an executive should include stress management techniques for your security officer force


In recent years, much has been learned about stress and stress disorders impacting individuals who work in high-risk occupational industries — police, fire, rescue and disaster, military and emergency medical. While security professionals have been unjustifiably marginalized from high-risk occupations, the divide is narrowing as the role of private security industry grows and evolves.

Security professionals will encounter a variety of threats that can cause traumatic stress: terrorism, espionage, piracy on the high seas, bombs, sabotage, workplace violence and active shooters, to name just a few. These threats present a challenging and dangerous environment.

Thus, the role of the security professional has become increasingly more complex, and the chance of being placed in harm’s way has significantly increased. With these increased risks, the potential to be exposed to a continuous level of stress has a high probability. Security professionals who are placed in crisis situations will experience post-traumatic stress, which is a normal reaction; however, the problem arises when the stress-induced symptoms persist, intensify and eventually become debilitating — defined as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Types of Stress

Excessive stress has emerged as a significant challenge to public health. More than 40 years ago, the Office of the U.S. Surgeon General declared that when stress reaches excessive proportions, psychological changes can be so dramatic as to have serious implications for both mental and physical health.

The two categories of stress that predominantly effect security professionals are cumulative stress and post-traumatic stress (PTS). Cumulative stress can be described as the erosion of one’s mental and physical health over time. In the past, these effects could have been described as "burn out" with the three phases: stress arousal, energy conservation and exhaustion. When routine stress turns into cumulative stress, it is due in part to people not addressing in a healthy way the accumulation of these stressors.

Eventually, coping resources run out, and it overwhelms the individual both mentally and physically — characterized as PTS. This ultimately becomes life encompassing; and while it should be noted that stress does not affect all people in high-risk occupations, for those affected, it is a painful experience. The symptoms of PTS include:

• Deterioration in performance;
• Deterioration in mental/physical health;
• Deterioration of relationships; and
• Deterioration of the person.

By comparison, cumulative stress can be described as the deterioration of your well- being, then PTS (sometimes called critical incident stress), can be thought of as the overwhelming of your state of psychological function. PTSD was first named in 1980 as an anxiety disorder with symptoms ranging from intensive memories, avoidance arousal and stress. To be classified as PTSD, the condition must be diagnosed after 30 days of being exposed to the traumatic event. PTSD can be diagnosed in 1 percent to 3 percent of the general population, 9 percent of urban adolescents, 15 percent to 20 percent of combat veterans, and 15 percent to 32 percent in emergency response workers.

The primary cause of PTSD is a stressful or traumatic event. Further, the risk of PTSD increases if the event is sudden and unpredictable, long lasting, recurring, contains real or threatened violence, involves multiple forms, and occurs in the early years before the personality is fully formed.

Symptoms of PTSD include self-recrimination (feeling of shame or guilt, shattered views of one’s self, the world and other people); and mood disturbances including depression, anxiety, hostility and grief for losses. The abuse of alcohol and drugs in an attempt to self-medicate combined with impulsive behavior – absence from work or sudden changes in life style may occur. Death anxiety, compulsion to repeat the trauma and self-mutilation are dangerous and extreme complications of PTSD.

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