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Potentially Traumatic Events

A potentially traumatic event is any event that has a stressful impact enough to overwhelm your usual coping strategies.

Reactions following a Potentially Traumatic Event

Most will cope with the experience of these potentially traumatic events by drawing upon their natural resilience, service training, coping strategies and support systems. There is, however, no single way people react or respond to these events.

We can expect a range of responses:

  • Most will feel some distress, but bounce back after a short period of time
  • Some will feel largely unaffected by these events – although in some cases, the effects are felt sometime later, particularly following a reminder of the event or a significant stressful event.
  • Some will feel strengthened by the event/s
  • A minority, however, are likely to develop more significant emotional or mental health problems. These kinds of problems may include Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, other anxiety problems (e.g. panic disorder, generalised anxiety disorder), and substance use disorders (alcohol or other drugs, abuse or dependence).


What can influence my reaction to a Potentially Traumatic Event?

There is a range of factors that can influence our responses or the way we feel after a potentially traumatic event. These include history of critical events or psychological trauma, the exact nature of the potentially traumatic event, our usual coping style, the level of support from work mates, supervisors, family and friends and other life stresses.

While we can’t change things that have happened in the past, we can help by ensuring that members know the best coping strategies to use and by giving them the support that they need.

How can I help myself following a Potentially Traumatic Event?

If you have been affected by a potentially traumatic event, there are several things you can do to enhance your ability to cope. Even if you feel unmotivated and apathetic, try to do some of the things below. They will help you to come to have a less intense reaction to the stress of the event and an improved ability to manage problems.

Recognise that you have been through an extremely stressful event. Give yourself time and space to acknowledge what you have been through.

Focus on the positive aspects of the event/job. Although an event may have been distressing, in many cases there are positive aspects that should be acknowledged. For instance, it is important for you to acknowledge to yourself that you did a good job, that you behaved professionally, and so on.

Use your sense of humour. It is important to try and maintain a sense of humour, although be sure to use your humour judiciously.

Look after yourself:

  • get plenty of rest, even if you can’t sleep
  • try to eat regular, well-balanced meals
  • Regular exercise, like walking, cycling or jogging
  • Relaxing activities – yoga, listening to music, meditation, hot bath
  • Cut back or cut out tea, coffee, chocolate, cola and cigarettes.
  • Avoid use of drugs or alcohol to numb the pain.
  • Spend time with people you care about, even if you do not want to talk about the event. Sometimes you will want to be alone; that’s ok but try not to become too isolated. 

Recurring thoughts, dreams and flashbacks are normal. Don’t try to fight them, they will decrease in time.

Try to resume a normal routine as quickly as possible, but take it easy, do not throw yourself into activities or work in an attempt to avoid the unpleasant feelings and memories.

Contact your Senior Psychologist/Social Worker, PSO or Chaplain if you feel you need to talk. External to the QPS you can visit your doctor or call 1800 ASSIST (1800 277 478).


How can I build my resilience to Potentially Traumatic Events?

There are also several ways in which you can look after yourself and build up your resilience to potentially traumatic events.

While you will not be able to control every situation that you face, in many cases there are ways in which you can prepare yourself for what you may encounter.

It is not always possible to prepare for a potentially traumatic event, but when you are called to attend a potentially traumatic event, prepare yourself for what you are going to encounter by gathering as much information as possible and planning how the event will be managed.

Experienced police members emphasise the importance of focusing on the task at hand – rather than how you are feeling – when you are amid dealing with a dangerous, difficult or distressing potentially traumatic event.
Maintain good health and look after yourself.

Learn Psychological First Aid (PFA) – PFA is the recommended process for managing reactions to potentially traumatic events, and for helping others that may be experiencing distress following a potentially traumatic event.


What is Psychological First Aid (PFA)?

PFA aims to reduce the initial distress caused by potentially traumatic events and is intended to be used on an as-needed basis, in recognition of the fact that members’ needs will vary. It is designed for delivery by anyone within the member’s service network, within the limits of their expertise and training in PFA.

The aims of PFA are to:

  • Ensure that members involved in a potentially traumatic event feel safe and secure;
  • Encourage members to ask for help and support from family and friends;
  • Reduce stress-related reactions for members;
  • Foster short and long-term coping for members;
  • Enhance members’ natural resilience rather than prevent long-term pathology; and
  • Provide interventions (treatments) to members on an as-needed basis.

Please find below two documents (pdf) providing information about what to do after a critical incident.

Help Your Mates
Help Yourself

QPS have support services available to you –