Working with people affected by an emergency

This information explains how to work with people who have been affected by an emergency, and also how look after your own emotional health at the same time.

Emergencies pose threats to people, their property and environment. In dangerous situations, uncertainty becomes a threat in itself and results in affected people becoming highly emotional.

Emotional arousal in emergencies

Being under threat puts the body into an instinctive survival state. It increases chances of survival by mobilising reserves of physical, mental and emotional energy. This is a state of heightened arousal and activates whatever functions the person needs to survive. Awareness of threatening aspects of the environment are heightened at the expense of reassuring features, or placing threats in context.

Why people become anxious or angry

  • Survival-oriented activity relieves tension by acting to reduce threat - an aroused person has increased energy, strength, perception and emotional toughness
  • Tension may be changed into anxiety or fearfulness - this can be accompanied with uncertainty, need for reassurance or guidance, tearfulness, trembling, lack of confidence, reliance on others, difficulty thinking clearly or making decisions
  • Anxiety undermines a person’s sense of their competence - it is a threat in itself that keeps arousal up and leads to a need for reassurance that may not be available
  • Tension may be released as anger - anger is a survival emotion that increases certainty (often unrealistically) by finding a focus and assigning blame and responsibility. Since anger at natural forces, God or the weather is not effective, anger is directed to people with responsibility instead.

Expressions of anger

Aggression and anger avoid the disabling effects of anxiety and enhance short term survival by focussing on the threat. There is a search for someone to blame and take responsibility, even if unrealistic.

Simplistic ideas of cause and effect, focussing on one aspect of a complex situation and assuming it could have turned out differently are used to justify anger and blame.

Angry people are more concerned about venting their anger than knowing facts.

Angry and anxious people may see rational discussion as avoidance, a cover-up or ducking responsibility.

Reducing anger and anxiety

Anxiety is reduced by reassurance and certainty about what is unknown.

If people cannot be given information to reduce their anxiety, then any certainty that can be given will help. Information about assistance (accommodation, financial needs, communication with family) reduce arousal. Emotional support helps a person tolerate anxiety.

The angry person is focused on the threat. They want action to satisfy their grievance. This is usually not possible and their understanding may not be objective. Do not give justifications or retaliate for unfair accusations. This further aggravates the anger, frustrates discharge of emotion and heightens tension, but does not reduce the threat.

Anger is reduced if either the threat is reduced or if emotion can be expressed with emotional support.

Impact of anger on workers

When working with people affected by an emergency, delayed reactions and cumulative stress reactions can build up. For your own emotional health, this needs to be prevented. Support from colleagues who understand your work is the best assistance.

No matter how well conversations with angry or anxious people are managed, anyone with concern for others and commitment to their job feels an impact. It is important to offload the anger absorbed to prevent it lingering or building up so you are not left with it. Describing what was unfair, insulting, worrying or evoked sympathy helps to you to debrief. There may be many more conversations before the emergency is over.

Support such as demobilisation or peer support sessions are best organised by management as part of operational routine, or arranged at the end of the shift. If reactions linger, a debriefing may enable the person to identify the reason and let it go.

    • How to interact with emotional people

      Tension is relieved when angry or anxious people feel they are communicating their concerns. If angry people keep talking, anger subsides.

      The first priority is to reduce the level of emotion by hearing the person out, allowing them to say freely what is on their mind. Receiving the information absorbs anxiety, anger and hostility.

      Respect their worries, fears and grievances by saying so. Also, use your body language to show you are listening. Letting people talk is the best way for them to calm down and start thinking clearly. You will be helping them without saying too much yourself.

      How to help:

      • Look directly at the person speaking to you
      • Respond and nod so they know you are listening
      • Ask questions to make sure you understand them
      • Avoid interrupting or being rushed
      • Find out why a question is being asked before answering it
      • Not judging or giving opinions - let them say what they want
      • Make comments to show you are with them for example agreeing, saying ‘I see’, ‘OK’, ‘yes’ 
      • Show their feelings of threat and anxiety are taken seriously for example, ‘that must have been a very dangerous moment’, ‘it is terrible that has happened’, ‘I am sorry to hear that’.

      How not to help:

      • Ordering people around or telling them to do things without explaining why
      • Telling them they’re lucky it wasn’t worse and comparing their problem with others
      • Talking down to them, not listening, telling them what they should feel
      • Reassuring them everything is all right when it isn’t
      • Taking their anger or emotions personally
      • Getting emotional or frustrated with them.
    • How to manage conversations with emotional people

      Supportive conversations with angry or anxious people have 4 stages:

      • Relieve tension by absorbing anger - keep comments to a minimum, only say what is required to keep communication going and to show the person is understood. Information cannot be absorbed in high anxiety or anger
      • Engage with the person's concerns - once they have told their story, ask for more details about their experience
      • Provide information or explanations as the person starts to calm down - as they become less agitated they will start asking questions or pause to see what you will say. Give information in short sentences, use simple words or images and avoid scientific or technical jargon
      • Conclude by offering the person an outcome - explain you will pass on the information they have given, enquire if you can be of further help and ensure they are aware of the other services available.

      Keeping objective

      It is difficult not to be affected by anger, become annoyed, hurt or impatient. It's important to understand that upset people need to release anger before they become more thoughtful in dealing with problems.

      Those who maintain blame, do not recover well from emergencies. They cannot accept what has happened, but continue to look for redress from someone they hold to blame. Hostile responses to their anger justify these feelings.

      Early support to distressed people initiates recovery. Even if nothing can be done immediately, they are more likely to recover control if responded to supportively.

      Keeping the conversation constructive

      The following considerations reduce impact and help keep conversations constructive:

      • The anger is not directed at you personally - you only represent the organisation they blame
      • Concentrate on observing the person being angry, rather than feel personally attacked
      • Listen carefully to what they say so you can respond when they are ready
      • Do not make defensive comments for example, ‘don’t blame me’, ‘it wasn’t my fault’, and ‘you’re talking to the wrong person’. They prevent discharge of emotion and build tension
      • Show understanding by saying, ‘I’m really sorry to hear that’, ‘that’s awful’, ‘we’ll have to see what can be done about that’, ‘what was the worst part of what happened for you?’

      Speak slowly, politely and quietly, even if they are yelling. Do not use their language, keep it rational and professional, preserve their dignity - often people feel embarrassed by their behaviour afterwards.

      Even if the person is angry at your agency, you can still provide support

      You do not have to defend your agency, although it may be necessary to explain. Not everything needs to be explained at once.

      Say something like:

      •  ‘These are important issues, I will talk to my managers about an opportunity to follow up’
      •  ‘There is a lot you may not know, we must talk further about this’.

      Indicate their concerns will be passed on and there will be opportunities for further discussion. Without opportunities for further resolution, anger will build up again preventing recovery.