Common Reactions After A Crisis

The brief, but very helpful, document outlines many of the common physical, cognitive, emotional, and behavioral reactions people have to crisis and major stressors. In addition, it gives suggestions for coping skills that can be used during the immediate aftermath of a critical incident stress. [International Critical Incident Stress Foundation]

Critical Incident Stress Information Sheets

You have experienced a traumatic event or a critical incident (any event that causes unusually strong emotional reactions that have the potential to interfere with the ability to function normally). Even though the event may be over, you may now be experiencing or may experience later, some strong emotional or physical reactions. It is very common, in fact quite normal, for people to experience emotional aftershocks when they have passed through a horrible event.

Sometimes the emotional aftershocks (or stress reactions) appear immediately after the traumatic event. Sometimes they may appear a few hours or a few days later. And, in some cases, weeks or months may pass before the stress reactions appear.

The signs and symptoms of a stress reaction may last a few days, a few weeks, a few months, or longer, depending on the severity of the traumatic event. The understanding and the support of loved ones usually cause the stress reactions to pass more quickly. Occasionally, the traumatic event is so painful that professional assistance may be necessary. This does not imply craziness or weakness. It simply indicates that the particular event was just too powerful for the person to manage by himself.

Here are some common signs and signals of a stress reaction:


Cognitive Emotional Behavioral


Confusion Fear Withdrawal


Nightmares Guilt Antisocial acts
Fatigue Uncertainty Grief

Inability to rest


Hypervigilance Panic Intensified pacing
Fainting Suspiciousness Denial

Erratic movements


Intrusive images Anxiety Change in social activity
Vomiting Blaming someone Agitation

Change in speech patterns


Poor problem solving Irritability Loss or increase of appetite
Weakness Poor abstract thinking Depression

Hyperalert to environment

Chest pain

Poor attention/decisions Intense anger Increased alcohol consumption


Poor concentration/memory Apprehension

Change in usual communications

Elevated BP Disorientation of time, place or person Emotional shock


Rapid heart rate

Difficulty identifying objects or people Emotional outburst

Muscle tremors

Heightened or lowered alertness

Feeling overwhelmed

Shock symptoms Increased or decreased awareness of surroundings

Loss of emotional control

Grinding of teeth


Inappropriate emotional response

Visual difficulties


Profuse sweating

Difficulty breathing


* Any of these symptoms may indicate the need for medical evaluation. When in doubt, contact a physician.

Things To Try:

  • WITHIN THE FIRST 24 – 48 HOURS periods of appropriate physical exercise, alternated with relaxation will alleviate some of the physical reactions.
  • Structure your time; keep busy.
  • You’re normal and having normal reactions; don’t label yourself crazy.
  • Talk to people; talk is the most healing medicine.
  • Be aware of numbing the pain with overuse of drugs or alcohol, you don’t need to complicate this with a substance abuse problem.
  • Reach out; people do care.
  • Maintain as normal a schedule as possible.
  • Spend time with others.
  • Help your co-workers as much as possible by sharing feelings and checking out how they are doing.
  • Give yourself permission to feel rotten and share your feelings with others.
  • Keep a journal; write your way through those sleepless hours.
  • Do things that feel good to you.
  • Realize those around you are under stress.
  • Don’t make any big life changes.
  • Do make as many daily decisions as possible that will give you a feeling of control over your life, i.e., if someone asks you what you want to eat, answer him even if you’re not sure.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Don’t try to fight reoccurring thoughts, dreams or flashbacks – they are normal and will decrease over time and become less painful.
  • Eat well-balanced and regular meals (even if you don’t feel like it).

For Family Members & Friends

  • Listen carefully.
  • Spend time with the traumatized person.
  • Offer your assistance and a listening ear if (s)he has not asked for help.
  • Reassure him that he is safe.
  • Help him with everyday tasks like cleaning, cooking, caring for the family, minding children.
  • Give him some private time.
  • Don’t take his anger or other feelings personally.
  • Don’t tell him that he is “lucky it wasn’t worse;” a traumatized person is not consoled by those statements. Instead, tell him that you are sorry such an event has occurred, and you want to understand and assist him.

© International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, Inc. 2001 All Rights Reserved. Reproduction Prohibited.

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For Further Information:

988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline
This Lifeline is for people experiencing a crisis and is available 24/7 in the United States. If you need help for yourself, a friend, or family member, call or text 988 right away.

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