What is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing?

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  • Written By: Emma Lloyd
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 13 October 2019
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Critical incident stress debriefing is a process which provides help and support for people who have been through a traumatic incident. These incidents can produce extreme emotional stress, and may prevent people from functioning normally after the incident is over. The goal with critical incident stress debriefing is to help people who undergo trauma to return to their normal lives as soon as possible.

The critical incident stress debriefing model provides trauma victims with a way of talking through and dealing with the trauma they have encountered. Many different types of trauma are supported with this model, and the range of traumatic experiences is extensive. People who receive this type of counseling may have been through the trauma of a terrorist incident, natural disaster, or serious accident; may have a friend or partner who died in the line of duty; or may have been involved in an incident which received intense coverage from the media.

The nature of critical incident stress debriefing therapy offered to trauma victims depends on the type of trauma they have suffered and the nature of the event which caused it. Debriefing may be a one-on-one session or a group therapy session, again depending on the nature of the incident. For example, if the incident was a natural disaster or other event involving many people, group debriefing sessions are more likely to be held.


Victims of trauma will usually go through three critical incident stress debriefing steps. The first step is called defusing, and occurs immediately following the traumatic incident, ideally before the person involved has slept. During this session, the goal is to provide reassurance and let the person know that they may experience symptoms of extreme stress over the following days. At this stage people involved in the incident are supplied with an emergency contact number they can call if they need someone to talk to about their feelings and symptoms.

The second step in the process is the debriefing itself, and usually occurs within three days of the incident. During the debriefing session individuals or a group of people talk about the incident and how they have been affected. In a group session, they are encouraged to share stories of the incident and talk about possible coping strategies. In addition, people undergoing a debriefing are given advice about adapting their lifestyle following the event. For example, they will be advised to take time off work if necessary, and give themselves plenty of time to heal.

The third and final step is a follow-up session which is usually brief and is carried out the day after the debriefing. In this session individuals are assessed to ensure that they are coping well, and are given contact information for counseling or support groups if needed. Overall, the entire process is designed to reassure victims of trauma that their feelings following the event are normal, and that they have the means to heal.


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