Critical incidents

What is a critical incident?

A critical incident is a relatively sudden, unanticipated event or situation that falls outside of usual day-to-day life, which can be life- threatening or threatening to your health and safety. You may have been directly involved in the event, or have been a witness to it, or even be a friend or family member of someone involved in the event.

Some examples of a critical or traumatic incident include:

  • robbery or assault
  • unexpected violence or aggression
  • sudden or violent death
  • serious workplace accidents
  • natural disasters, such as floods and bushfires
  • sexual assault/rape (more information)

Reactions to a critical incident can differ widely, depending upon how involved you were in the event, your personal history (has something like this happened to you before?) and your personal health and stress levels before the event occurred.

The information below includes how and when to seek help, common reactions to a critical incident, and some tips on how to take care of yourself now and in the days and weeks to come.

Help is at hand

If you have witnessed or been involved in a critical incident on campus please call Security on 9351 3333.

If you have witnessed or been involved in a critical incident, whether on or off campus, and would like to talk to a counsellor:

Students, contact Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) on 8627 8433 or 8627 8437
Staff members, contact the Case Management Group on 9351 5885

Common reactions to a critical incident

Reactions to a stressful event can differ. Your reaction may be different to others involved because of your personal history, whether you were directly involved or a witness to the event, and your levels of health and stress before the event took place. The following information is a guide to some common reactions to traumatic events.

It is important to remember that all of the following are a normal, physical response to an abnormal, unusual event. Your body and mind are trying to cope with the effects of an extraordinary incident. Many of the responses will only last a few days, others may be more long lasting.

Immediate responses:

  • shock or numbness
  • anger and frustration
  • disbelief
  • fear
  • guilt
  • constant questioning “what if…”
  • reliving or frequent intrusive thoughts of the event
  • crying/distress
  • physical sensations, such as chest pain or breathing difficulties

Some responses that may occur over the next 12-48 hours:

  • irritability/short temper
  • flat/low mood
  • insomnia
  • nightmares
  • flashbacks to the event
  • feelings of hopelessness/despair or confusion
  • difficulty concentrating/focusing
  • increased use of drugs or alcohol

Occasionally people will experience the after effects of an event for a number of weeks. Other people will initially feel fine, only to realise much later that they are experiencing low mood or depression, changes to their social life, frequent bursts of anger or other changes that could be related to the event.

Ways of coping

In the initial phases of coping after a traumatic event, it is important that you recognise that many of the things that you are experiencing are a normal part of the stress response. You will need to take extra care of yourself to help re-establish a healthy equilibrium after the event.

Make sure you are eating well, and getting enough to drink. Make sure you can build in time to spend with other people. If possible, arrange for someone to pick you up from work/uni, or to make sure there is someone you can go home to. Friends and family can provide reassurance, and help you to feel safe.

You will need to help your body to calm down, and to feel safe. Try to allow yourself time out to engage in something you enjoy, such as going for a run, reading a book, or having a bath.

Don’t expect that you will be able to concentrate fully on work or uni for a while after the event. It may take some time before your responses return to normal.

Seek help. Speaking to a counsellor can help to place your reactions into context and can provide you with more strategies to manage your health.

If you are noticing that you are continuing to experience some of the symptoms described above, please make an appointment to speak with a counsellor as soon as possible. Your local GP may also be able to help.

For more information on dealing with critical incidents

Australian Psychological Society: managing traumatic stress and stressful events tip sheet

Australian Centre for Post-traumatic Mental Health