Critical Events and Stress Management

Learn how to manage stress and anxiety in a crisis or other critical event. Licensed counselor Dorinda Burnham dives into coping skills and resources to use.

Critical Events and Stress Management


Estimated watch time: 19 mins 

Available credits: none

Objectives and Summary:

In this community education webinar, Dorinda Burnham, LMHC, CCTP, discusses stress management and decision-making before, during and after a crisis event, and how to bring anxiety and stress from a level 10 to a manageable amount.

After watching her presentation, the viewer will be able to:
  1. Understand the body and brain’s response to stressful events and anxiety
  2. Differentiate between inundating catastrophizing and thoughtful planning before a stressful event
  3. Use tools, resources and strategies to cope with stress and anxiety

Presentation Materials:


Welcome to the Community Education Series hosted by The Recovery Village and Advanced Recovery Systems. Hi. I’m Dorinda Burnham, Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Certified Clinical Trauma Professional. I work with changing perspectives, counseling groups, and prepared this presentation to help a little bit with stress management. It’s extremely important, not only for me as a professional, but in my personal life. I work very hard with critical incident stress management and debriefing techniques, and these are skills we not only want to use in critical times, but in our own self-care daily.

So we’ll talk about stressful events and why we get so panicked. The basic thing is we find comfort in things that we can control. And while there can be a huge debate on what we can and can’t control in our lives (which is usually very few things), often we still struggle when an outcome is not predictable. The need to plan and control usually comes from fear. It’s rooted in protecting ourselves and can become quite detrimental when things do not go well or go as planned. When we feel a shift in what we expect to happen, we go into a protective or defensive mode. For many people, the element of the unknown can be the biggest fear in this situation.

The reality is that we always have unknowns. We don’t know what is going to happen tomorrow. We cannot predict what the next step is going to be, and often unforeseen issues come up despite our best-laid plans. We feel most secure if people understand this. We feel more secure if we feel like we have some sort of plan in place. So a lot of panic can be set aside when we plan and prepare before an event takes place.

Something that is important to understand is how we react to the world around us. A lot of this is found in mirror neurons. These are brain cells. They tell us how to act based on the world around us. So while it can be really healthy and help us create good bonds and empathize with other people, they can also be detrimental in times of critical incident or stress. Usually we hear this in what’s called the contagious yawn or the yawn principle, like when someone is tired and they start yawning around you and you are compelled to yawn as well. This is how our brain reacts to other people and we start to mimic those actions. There is no way in this type of instantaneous reaction for our brain to quickly decipher between positive or negative.

So in a stressful event, our autonomic response system gets triggered and we have that negative fight-or-flight bias response. This prepares us for the worst-case scenario and anything that we feel threatened by. But in a stressful event, it also impacts our decision-making and sometimes we are reactive instead of taking a step back and planning for what is best. This means that sometimes negativity will spread like wildfire, whereas little bits of positivity don’t have a chance to catch up to it.

One thing you need to know in planning for any sort of crisis that’s going on is: where you get your information is a key principle in planning, preparing and reducing your stress. It’s good to be aware of where your information comes from, whether it’s the media, your social circles, your professional circles, or even your very close family members. There’s a huge difference between getting necessary information for decision-making and planning, and becoming inundated with details that may not actually impact us or people immediately around us. Often minimizing the exposure, limiting how much media, social media or information we’re taking in can reduce our overthinking.

One principle to remember in any situation that is stressful is that uncertainty is okay. We don’t have to know every single little detail, we only need to be informed as much as what is relevant to us. Now, there are some events such as a tornado where you may need information very quickly. There are other events that take days, weeks, or even months to plan out. Knowing what you need to do and what you need to put in place ahead of time is helpful to these situations. It’s important to focus on our own perspective of preparation over panic for things going on outside of our control.

We can plan for just about anything. We can be cautious and we can get to a point where we feel prepared without overreacting. We create safety based on our needs and what we feel is most important to us. Again, minimizing the exposure to any news, social media, and conversations about the incident is really helpful. Knowing who your support group is and how they react to situations can also remind us that we need to be careful of what we’re taking in. Separating someone else’s panic or stress and our own stress and anxiety that we need to manage. Choosing sources and people you most trust is really helpful. Sometimes choosing one or two media sources that you trust instead of turning on every single channel can be helpful. Looking at local information instead of state or national information can sometimes be helpful because you know what’s happening in your immediate area.

We can plan for just about anything. This does not mean that we have to spend time catastrophizing or thinking of worst-case scenarios in any event. This means that we can have conversations ahead of time and talk about realistic expectations when something occurs. If you already know that you struggle with anxiety, depression, or have been through a similar traumatic event that this is going to trigger, asking for help is key. We don’t like to ask for help. A lot of us like to do this on our own, but it’s okay to have these conversations and let our needs be known because preparation reduces the panic. We don’t want to reach level 10 stress. We want to be able to plan ahead and talk through things that are going to help us keep it at a minimum.

Planning for any sort of isolation or relocation is key in a lot of events. Sometimes we are asked to shelter-in-place, sometimes we are asked to evacuate depending on the situation that we’re in. Having these conversations with family, friends, or your supportive network ahead of time helps alleviate the tension and stress when the event takes place. Everyone should know their roles in the crisis situation and communicate their needs in a way that feels supported and understood. And let’s be honest, our families can cause a lot of stress. There’s a lot of different personalities and a lot of different needs. Getting a plan in place ahead of time reduces the need for additional stress when the event takes place because these things have already been discussed and expectations are already set in motion.

Going through anything critical with children is something that needs to be handled in a way where we’re realizing that mirror neuron connection again. Anything that we do is on display for our family members, including the children that are with us. It’s a great idea to have conversations with children that validate their concerns and encourage them to ask questions.
It’s also okay if they ask questions and you don’t have the answers. “I don’t know” is a completely acceptable answer in any situation, especially in a crisis event, because we want to be honest and upfront about how we’re handling the situation and what the next steps are.

The important part when you’re dealing with family and you’re dealing with children is to remember that play and fun need to have a place in that stressful event management. Engage with kids and your family, make time for positivity and lighthearted activities. This can be a huge benefit because we are spreading that tiny bit of positivity that can get overwhelmed by negative events.

Know your resources. Sometimes you don’t have a lot of planning ahead before the event, but oftentimes we’re able to know what’s available at local, state or national levels. You can contact emergency organizations ahead of time and ask what resources are going to be available either before the event, during the event, or if you’ll have to wait until the end.

Coping skills are huge in any situation, whether it’s a stressful crisis event or not. So start thinking about how you manage stress on a daily basis. Many of the same principles or things that you do day-to-day to manage your everyday stress are the same things you’re going to apply when a critical emergent event occurs.

The biggest one I can tell you is to set boundaries. Boundaries allow ourselves to protect our wellbeing and they are not created to damage or disparage anyone else. They’re set in place so we make sure our needs get met and we are decreasing our anxiety. When we take care of ourselves first, we’re able to show up and be available and take care of other people.

The important thing is not to be overwhelmed and not to have conversations or other events going on that are going to trigger more anxiety. Uncertainty is okay. I repeat that all the time with clients. I have. Turning off the TV and minimizing exposure to things that can trigger stress and anxiety is okay. Engaging more with a supportive network or people you feel have empathy for your situation has a much better reaction internally with your mental and physical health than having stress put on you by inundated information coming at you and overwhelming you day to day.

The one thing that people really don’t like to talk about as a coping skill, but we all need to do in some form, is exercise. It’s a great way to manage stress and anxiety. It’s a great way to boost feel-good hormones, and it triggers that reward center part of our brain that lets us know that we feel mentally and physically better. It also improves our health. It increases motivation and it encourages healthy habits. When we are moving, we are doing things that make us feel healthier, feel better, and we probably are going to develop other healthy habits to support the exercise we’re doing. Sticking to a healthy diet, planning out things that are going to decrease our stress by making our physical needs feel prioritized is key in any stressful event. It can affect sleep, it can affect our physical health.

People that already have some sort of underlying physical condition or medical condition need to be aware of the impact of stress on your body, especially in times where a critical incident is taking place. We want to reduce the anxiety. We want to reduce depression. We want to reduce things that are going to exacerbate these symptoms and do things that get us back to things that make our body feel better.

Part of a healthy diet is to abstain or significantly reduce any use of substances such as alcohol or drugs. The effects of these substances can increase anxiety and stressful times and decrease our ability to think clearly. In a stressful event, we need to make smooth, clear decisions and feel rested, we need to be alert and we need to understand our feelings instead of numbing them out.

When I say get your sleep, we talk about sleep hygiene. What that means is having a sleep schedule, going to bed at the same time each night, getting up at the same time during the day, knowing that if there’s restlessness or wakefulness at night, that you have a plan in place of how to deal with that, such as journaling, reading, doing things that are going to relax your body and keep your mind away from the catastrophizing and overthinking.

A lot of that ties into this mindfulness that we hear a lot about. Mindfulness and stress reduction are key. Doing things daily that start to ground yourself and stay present and give you a little bit of mental clarity are things that you can start to adapt that become healthy habits that work for you better in stressful situations. So there’s five of them listed here.

The first one is naming your fears. Go ahead when you’re having these intrusive thoughts and let them come up and recognize them, don’t make them mean anything, don’t make them a reality, but recognize what these fears are and name them. What is the biggest worry you have that will happen in a critical event? Is it that you think there’s imminent danger to yourself or someone you care about? Write it down. Write down a whole list of the fears. Allow yourself to think about that worst-case scenario. Go back over the list and prioritize them from what is the least likely to happen to the most likely to happen. Look at that list carefully and think about what you can do. What are the personal risks? How can you prepare for these things? If there’s a lot of things that give you a perspective that realistically it’s not going to happen, maybe there’s even things we can start to cross off the list and focus on the things that we feel like we have more decision-making and control over.

Any exercise in writing helps us because it takes those spinning thoughts out of our brain, gets them down to a piece of paper, a journal, something that we can look at and something that we can make tangible. Once we write things down, whether you’re doing journaling, creative writing, even drawing or creative bullet journaling can help just organize those thoughts. A lot of times we feel like we’re overwhelmed with, you know, 10, 50 different things going on in our head and we get it organized and maybe there’s three issues we need to tackle. So it helps to prioritize, it helps to organize, it brings the stress down.

Overthinking is something that we all do at one point or another in stressful situation. We are already hardwired to minimize the threat and react to it. You have to slow down. You’re overthinking to where it can’t be rational, spaced-out thought. The space in between those thoughts is what we call mindfulness. Meditation, guided imagery takes these spaces and brings them out over time.

So when we talk about meditation, a lot of people feel anxious just about that word because they think you have to clear your brain from all thoughts. It’s really slowing down your thoughts so you can have more space in between them to be present and focus on what’s going on in the moment. A lot of meditative guides and guided imagery, whether it is breath work, music, walking through an image of a beach or a park or something soothing are available for free through apps and online publications. You can do these throughout the day, whether you’re at your office, you can do them at home, you can do them before sleep. You can do this if you wake up in the middle of the night to recenter and slow down those spots.

Simple breathing exercises, yoga, stretching. Anything that involves slow movement in your body is going to slow that heart rate, decrease your blood pressure, and it’s going to give you that sense of wellbeing. When our bodies are fluid and stretched out, we feel more relaxed. Stress and relaxation cannot exist at the same time.

So the more things we do every day that physically and mentally relax our body and mind, we are going to be able to handle things not at that level 10 but reduce it down a little bit to where it’s manageable. Any sort of grounding techniques (and there are a ton of them available) center and bring us back to that present place.

It’s all about reducing anxiety and stress by being present. Not trying to get into the future, that increases the anxiety because we don’t know what’s going to happen. Not staying in the past, which brings up depression because we can’t resolve what has already happened. We have to be present. We have to get away from catastrophic thinking. Grounding techniques help us do this.

Above all else, you need to take care of yourself. Nothing works unless you are in a place where your needs are met. To show up and take care of others, you have to have extra energy. You have to have extra rest and motivation. Ask for help. The number one thing to take away from all of this is asking for help, whether it’s from your supportive network, from your family, from friends, from coworkers, from mental health professionals that even in a time of crisis can be available to you.

There are a ton of resources made available ahead of time when a crisis event is being planned for. It may not look like traditional face-to-face therapy. It may be through webinars and presentations or telehealth, which is either conducted over the telephone or face-to-face video chat, but there are a lot of resources that are untapped in times of stress management. Make sure that you use all the resources available to you to take care of your mental health, then you can show up to help other people. I thank you so much for listening and I hope you all stay safe, anxiety-free, and help manage each other’s stress. Thank you.

Thank you for watching this video. We hope you enjoyed the presentation.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.