Managing Your Stress During and After a Crisis

Knowing yourself and your limits is important in managing your stress during and after a disaster strikes.

BLOG POST | May 3, 2019

by Rebecca DeSantis, content and engagement coordinator, ICMA

A crisis strikes. Your blood pressure rises. Your heart rate increases. You start to sweat.

The physical and mental stress of the disaster sets in quickly, but you keep moving ahead and leading your team. That stress can take a toll on your body and affect your emotional wellbeing. 

According to Jay Fitch and Jim Marshall in a 2016 PM article "Trauma Takes Its Toll," when someone dealing with a crisis "experiences intense fear, horror, or helplessness" when dealing with a disaster that involves someone experiencing serious injury, death, or displacement, "he or she has been exposed to a traumatic event."

The reactions to a traumatic event like a manmade or natural disaster can include anxiety, irritability, sleep problems, changes in appetite, and withdrawal from family and friends. The physical and emotional stress felt during a disaster can manifest into acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) when symptoms persist for more than one month.

Stress during a crisis "can also trigger the release of cortisol and other stress hormones," explain Fitch and Marshall. "This stress response is normal—and helpful—but when it occurs too frequently without adequate rebalancing, it ups the risk for chronic stress response, which can lead to physical and mental disorders."

Every manager's response to a diaster may be different, and it's important for them to be self-aware when symptoms arise, as well as look out for these reactions in their staff and public safety personnel.

In "Leadership and Professional Local Government Managers: Before, During, and After a Crisis," part of ICMA's Leading Edge Research series, author Ron Carlee explains that effective management during a crisis involves knowing one's limits and finding time to meet physical and emotional needs. In reference to this report, Carlee says that "The managers in this study recognized the need to take care of themselves and most confessed that they did so poorly. Most worked 24 to 36 hours during the initial phase of the crisis, even those who knew that they shouldn’t."

It is critically important for managers to manage their stress during a crisis so that they can continue to serve and be the leader their community needs. Some local government leaders reflect on their experience handling their stress during critical moments, highlighted in this report:

“You need to listen to your team and to your family when they tell you it’s time to extract yourself; staying is not good for anyone.” Harold Dominguez, Longmont, Colorado

“I worked for about 36 hours until the assistant city manager, whose home had been flooded, had the peace of mind to say that we should go on shifts. Police and fire had done so, but the others had to catch up.” Rick Davis, Baytown, Texas

“I worked 36 straight days.... You have to listen to your body and realize that you’ve reached a point where it’s beyond your physical or mental capacity to be there. My police chief and others were watching me and I can remember specifically my assistant chief saying, ‘Dan, you need to get some rest.’ You must realize when you’re at a point where you are not being effective or your judgement is cloudy. Take the external cues—when someone comes up to you and says, ‘You’re not looking good’ or ‘You don’t seem like yourself.’ Don’t push yourself until you break.” Dan Paranick, Ventura, California

“I didn’t sleep for two days. I had nowhere to go, but I got a message delivered to the fire department saying ‘This is Christine, you don’t know me, I live at this address and I happen to be in Arizona. Please go use my house.’ I remember trudging up there in the pitch black. In a mountain town with no electricity, it is really black. I wore someone’s big ol’ muck boots and I found her house in the dark. She said where the key would be. I opened the house in the dark and laid down. That was after 48 hours and my head was swimming, just reeling. At that point you’re so psyched up, you can’t relax. It was still thundering and lightning. It was bizarre. It was different. I knew at that moment that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.” Victoria Simonsen, Lyons, Colorado

Want to learn more about managing yourself during a crisis? In this Leading Edge Research report, Ron Carlee, D.P.A., captures the ideas, feelings, and stories of the professional managers who were involved in different crises. By analyzing the common and effective leadership and management skills and techniques that professional managers deploy when a crisis strikes, we can better understand the lessons learned from managers and identify leading or promising practices that can be adopted by others. Download the report today!

Download Report


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