What is Critical Incident Stress Management?

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  • Written By: Laura M. Sands
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2019
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Critical incident stress management (CISM) refers to a group of stress-relieving activities immediately offered to groups and individuals in times of crisis. CISM is intended to prevent those directly affected by a crisis from developing post traumatic stress disorder and other anxiety disorders. CISM intervention is also useful in helping crisis workers and volunteers cope with stressors that accompany their jobs. Critical incident stress management techniques are useful in preparing ahead of time for a crisis, as well as during and after a major incident. These techniques are sometimes taught in clinical psychology settings, as well as in independent training modules.

Those most likely to be trained in critical incident stress management are police and fire rescue teams, as well as mental health professionals hired to work with disaster victims. In many areas, emergency response personnel are mandated to learn methods of critical incident stress management. After initial training, continuing education classes are offered as a way to assure that individuals are well-versed in the latest methods of applying their skills in the community.

Critical incident stress management does not focus solely on helping individuals during the course of a disaster, terrorist attack or other life-altering event. During CISM training, professionals also learn techniques for preparing for possible stress in the future. Such training includes learning how to control stress and how to resist its onset as much as possible as large scale events occur.


During a crisis, CISM team members are able to quickly organize group meetings, mobilize response teams, effectively administer press briefings and work to organize necessary triage centers. In being able to organize and deliver crucial physical and mental health services during a crisis, critical incident stress management professionals are able to provide unique and immediate psychological support. Such is helpful in allowing victims and witnesses to return to a life of normalcy as soon as possible.

After a crisis event, CISM professionals continue to work on minimizing stressful effects by providing individual, conjoint and group counseling services, as well as referrals. Following an intervention by a critical stress management professional or group of professionals, individuals may still experience stress, though often to a lesser degree than would have been experienced without CISM intervention. Therapy, stress medicine and other tools to help a person cope with trauma are likely to still be needed, but critical incident stress management lessens the likelihood and severity of a future anxiety disorder.


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Post 4

@MrMoody - Any stress management workshop worth its salt should focus on preparation, not just recovery. I think the way we react in crisis situations is the result of the way we have prepared – or failed to prepare – for an incident.

The reason we don’t prepare for the most tragic of incidents is that we don’t like to think about them. Honestly, nobody does.

I hear this commercial on the radio advertising the benefits of planning for funerals in advance. They point out that people who have not planned in advance have an even more difficult time after the death of a loved one.

I realize that all stressors are not life and death situations. But whatever they are, we should identify them and then plan in advance for how we will deal with them.

Post 3

@Mammmood - The worst stress to me would be to recover from an accident or a tragedy only to discover that a loved one had been killed and that you survived. That would be horrendous in my opinion.

I imagine that there are certain grief recovery and counseling techniques that these crisis management teams use which are helpful.

I can’t imagine any technique in that situation which would make someone actually feel better, but it could prevent the stress from spiraling out of control.

Post 2

@MrMoody - I’ve heard that people who come back from military conflicts overseas sometimes experience post traumatic stress disorder.

Some of the most common symptoms are flashbacks, where they constantly replay in their minds the event that created the stressful situation in the first place.

They may have nightmares where they relive the sight of a buddy getting killed or something like that. I would assume that with crisis management they would focus on stress management exercises that involve openly talking about the incident.

I also expect that there would be a lot of psychotherapy involved here. In the end, I think it takes time to recover from post traumatic stress disorder of this kind. But I agree that it’s best if it’s addressed early on.

Post 1

I think the work of first responders in stress management is critical after a terrorist attack. That kind of a crisis is something that most of us are not prepared to deal with.

It sends us into a shock, and the fear and paranoia can be palpable. People can be afraid to go on airplanes or simply be thrown into a state of depression, because they feel like their world has suddenly crumbled.

I laud first responders who have crisis management training and can help victims recover, not only physically but mentally and emotionally as well.

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