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Stress and Psychology for First Responders and CERT Members of Natural Disasters and Terrorist Attacks

Stress and Psychology for First Responders and CERT Members of Natural Disasters and Terrorist Attacks

The aftermath of an natural disaster can be extremely stressful for both the survivors and the first responders. For many, their homes, businesses and lives have been destroyed by the floods, fires, earthquakes or any number of other natural disaster. Situation-related stress can be unbearable and leave many wondering how they will be able to start over.

First responders and CERT members need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of situation-related stress and know how they can manage the stress and best help those who have been affected by the disaster. It is not always easy to admit- especially if you are supposed to be the one giving the help. However, if you are a first responder and struggling to bounce back from the last disaster it can put your ability to help others in jeopardy and affect how well you do your job.

If you are interested in learning more about the CERT Program and how you can be involved in helping your community and other communities that have been affected by a natural disaster or terrorist attack, read our other article titled, “Overview of the Community Emergency Response Team program (CERT)” or “The Community Emergency Response Teams (CERT)”.

In this article, I want to review the steps to manage Vicarious Trauma that CERT members and first responders are trained to use in such events.

NOTE: FEMA defines Vicarious Trauma as: “The emotional shift that can occur when CERT members interact closely with disaster survivors.”.

There are three main ways you, as a CERT member or first responder can protect yourself from the effects of vicarious trauma. They are:
1- Don’t over-identify with survivors
2- Be self-aware of vicarious trauma
3- Reduce stress if needed

Over-Identifying with Survivors

It will be extremely hard to witness the devastation and destruction in the lives of survivors. Pretending that you are not affected by what you see and empathizing in part with those you help would be unrealistic. However, a certain level of disconnect and the ability to stay objective is a skill you will you need to be a strong support so that survivors can lean on you and count on your support to help them get through the disaster. If you are an “emotional wreck” you will not be effective in helping survivors through the disaster. The more you over-identify with the survivors, the more stressed you will feel. Over Identifying can cause you to be ineffective in helping others.

Be Self Aware

To help you manage the stress of helping others, you need to be self-aware of any psychological or physical symptoms you may experience. This includes being alert to your state of mind and the reactions to your experiences while working with others.

FEMA has identified a list of psychological and physiological symptoms to be aware of. If you notice yourself experiencing any of these as a result of working with survivors, you should immediately begin the process of reducing your stress level.

Along with being aware of your own symptoms, be attentive to other responders that you work with. Even when these symptoms are present it can be hard to admit to them. Sometimes it takes the help of a friend to point out the symptoms and help you take action to relieve some stress.

Psychological Symptoms Physiological Symptoms
  • Irritability or anger
  • Self-blame or the blaming of others
  • Isolation and withdrawal
  • Fear of recurrence
  • Feeling stunned, numb, or overwhelmed
  • Feeling helpless
  • Mood swings
  • Sadness, depression, and grief
  • Denial
  • Concentration and memory problems
  • Relationship conflicts and marital discord


  • Loss of appetite
  • Headaches or chest pain
  • Diarrhea, stomach pain, or nausea
  • Hyperactivity
  • Increase in alcohol or drug consumption
  • Nightmares
  • Inability to sleep
  • Fatigue or low energy


Reduce Stress

There are many ways to reduce the Vicarious Trauma you may be experiencing from helping the survivors. There is no single pattern or process to reduce your stress level. Part of being self-aware is understanding how you personally reduce your own stress level. For many people it means removing yourself from the situation and returning to a routine at home with family or friends when possible to keep yourself objective from the disaster.

Depending on the type of stress you are experiencing, such as,  physical, emotional, or psychological/spiritual, you’ll need to address each one differently. The chart below can help you think of some activities you can do to reduce your stress in those areas.


Physical Emotional Psychological / Spiritual
Balanced Diet Connecting with others Spiritual resources
Plenty of Sleep Helping and supporting others Talking with mental health professionals
Exercise Breathing exercises
Relaxing activity


If you are experiencing high levels of stress, don’t hesitate to seek help by letting other CERT members and first responders know. Vicarious Trauma is serious and should be treated as such. Your team members will want to help you reduce your stress level and get you back on the team.


After a natural disaster, both survivors and first responders may experience situation-related stress. It is important to be self-aware of your own stress level as a CERT member and first responder so that you can not only be more effective in helping others but so that you can also take care of yourself.