Understanding and Coping With Traumatic Stress (Reading Course) - Headington Institute Skip to content

Understanding and Coping With Traumatic Stress (Reading Course)

Humanitarian workers come in many shapes and sizes. They work in on-site recovery and relief missions,
education, health training, agricultural assistance, community mobilization, economic development, water and sanitation, conflict resolution, and advocacy. The common thread across these diverse roles is a service-
orientation in the face of suffering and need. Everyone who works for a humanitarian organization is a helper in some capacity.

The traditional image of helpers is that they are selfless and tireless. They, themselves, tend to expect that
because their work is for a noble cause, they will somehow be immune to pressure. However, humanitarian
workers are impacted by their work. They often leave at the end of the day feeling that they have not done
enough because the scope of the need is so overwhelming. They can be troubled by witnessing violence and
poverty, and by hearing the stories of refugees and disaster survivors. In addition, in today’s global climate,
many face danger during the course of their work. In this service-oriented profession, many humanitarian
workers struggle to find a healthy balance between the demands of the work and the need to pay some
attention to their own physical and emotional well-being.

Too often, humanitarian workers consistently fail to pay any attention to their own self‐care and well‐being.
Humanitarian work can be demanding, both physically and emotionally, and those who neglect their own
needs eventually find themselves paying the price. They get sick more easily, and stay sick longer. They feel
tired, drained, and worn out. They may start to feel anxious, cynical or hopeless. Relationships suffer. They can
start to act in ways that hurt themselves by using drugs, alcohol, or engaging in risky behavior. In the end,
those who decided to do humanitarian work to help others can end up hurting themselves and those around

Humanitarian workers can be supported in several ways that reduce the likelihood of developing stress-related
problems. The first type of important support is to provide basic information about stress, trauma, normal
reactions to stressful situations, and helpful coping strategies. Every humanitarian worker should understand
traumatic stress and know how to help prevent or alleviate traumatic stress reactions. Knowledge about
normal reactions to stressful situations, and action regarding healthy self-care practices, work together to
protect physical and emotional well-being. Enhanced well-being means that humanitarian workers remain
happier, healthier and more effective in their work, longer.

This is the first in a series of online training modules produced by the Headington Institute that explore
various aspects of traumatic stress as it relates to humanitarian work.

This introductory module aims to help humanitarian workers:

  1. Understand the different types of traumatic stress associated with their work
  2. Recognize the signs of stress and burnout
  3. Learn self-care techniques to help alleviate stress reactions

By the end of this module you will better understand:

  • The nature of traumatic stress
  • Three common types of traumatic stress associated with humanitarian work – critical incident stress,
    vicarious trauma, and chronic stress
  • The effects of traumatic stress
  • Why it is important for humanitarian workers to know about these effects
  • How to monitor your own well-being
  • Self-care techniques to help alleviate stress reactions
  • Where to get more information for continued learning or personal assistance

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