Dealing with trauma in a comms role

Dealing with exposure to trauma when working in a communications role

Many police staff roles are exposed to traumatic or difficult incidents, materials and information and are operating in a very challenging and demanding environment.

For police communicators, trauma may be caused by one or a combination of the following:

  • being called out to attend the scene of an ongoing major incident.
  • being involved in incident briefings and having exposure to evidential images, audio, video or distressing victim impact statements.
  • working directly with families who have been the victims of serious crime and coaching them through media attention and speculation.
  • working on specialist investigations such as child sexual abuse cases.
  • collecting and creating communications materials to support court cases.
  • translating complex case information into internal communications.

Whilst our exposure to certain materials as communicators can be limited in comparison with those officers and staff leading the investigations, there can still be a psychological impact on you. That can either be in response to one particular incident, or it can build up over the course of your career, so it’s important to be able to spot the signs that you, or a team member might be struggling.

Each role and each person, differs in levels of exposure, resilience and need for support, so this part of the toolkit brings together some key information to help you identify signs and symptoms of secondary trauma and provide you with some guidance around what you can do for yourself, or for your team members, to help.

If you recognise any of these signs or symptoms, please contact your force Occupational Health or EAP, or speak to your GP for additional support and signposting.


Signs and symptoms of secondary trauma

Here are some of the common signs and symptoms of secondary trauma. This can happen to anyone and it’s important if you notice these signs and symptoms that you ask for help. To be clear, what you’re looking for, in yourself or others, are changes in behaviour.

Re-experience symptoms:

  • unable to switch off from the work
  • upsetting dreams or flashbacks
  • overreactions to work related issues
  • victimised feelings of hopelessness and helplessness

Arousal symptoms:

  • unreasonable anger or irritability focused at family, colleagues, or situations
  • self-destructive behaviour such as driving too fast or having an affair
  • jumpy, or an inability to sleep or relax
  • inability to concentrate, leading to increased numbers of accidents or errors
  • sensitivity to noise and bright lights

Negative thinking symptoms:

  • negative self-beliefs such as, “I’m incompetent”; “the world is bad”; “no one can be trusted”
  • lack of interest in things that used to be enjoyable
  • negative outlook on life leading to unreasonable fears, beliefs, and attitudes
  • feelings of isolation from family and friends
  • emotional numbing and difficulty in showing sensitivity or positive emotions

Avoidance symptoms:

  • putting off doing work or dealing with demanding cases
  • not looking too deeply
  • avoiding questions that might lead to upsetting responses
  • blocking out or forgetting the most distressing areas
  • using alcohol to block out feelings

Trauma support in the workplace

This section forms part of the National Police Wellbeing Service trauma support programme to support officers and staff who are exposed to actual disturbing and shocking events as part of their daily work.

When those incidents at work take place, people may be likely to experience a range of unfamiliar feelings and reactions associated with the shock of the event and may have difficulty in collecting their thoughts and handling their emotional reactions about what has happened.

Our aim is to describe some common reactions to such events, helping you understand and recognise indicators and where to access further help or support if you feel that is needed.

It must be emphasised that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ ways to react, and different individuals exposed to the same event may respond in quite different ways.

Having to deal with traumatic events is part of police life. While most officers and staff involved in an extremely stressful or traumatic incident will be shaken by what has happened, some adjust to their experiences with little or no apparent distress. This would be considered a quite common response. Sometimes people may in fact feel satisfied by the way that they have acted when faced with a traumatic event (such as if they have been able to help colleagues and others who have been involved).

Although everyone’s experience will be unique and personal, the process of psychological adjustment and recovery will often be different, and there maybe times that even the most experienced officer will find it difficult to cope.

When those incidents at work take place, you should have an opportunity to speak to your supervisor about what happened, be reminded of the support that is available to you including, where appropriate, a defusing meeting by your supervisor or a peer. As a partner, family member, or friend it is important that you understand what you can do to support the process of recovery.

Some common psychological reactions:

  • emotions of fearfulness, nervousness, or occasional panic, especially when faced with reminders of the event
  • hyper-vigilance - constantly scanning the environment for cues of danger or seeing threat in things that would have appeared innocent before, this could mean being overly protective of children or loved ones
  • sleep disturbance - difficulty in getting off to sleep, restless sleep, vivid dreams or nightmares
  • memories - thoughts/images of the incident, which can appear to ‘come out of the blue’, without any triggers or reminders other thoughts, images, or feelings may be prompted by something on the media, which have a resonance to their experience
  • guilt - feelings of regret, about not having acted or coped as well as one would have wished, feeling that you may have let one’s self or others down
  • sadness - feelings of low mood and tearfulness, irritability and anger at what happened or the injustice of the event
  • irritability can often be directed at loved ones, close family friends, or colleagues
  • feeling numb or detached from others or being unable to experience emotions such as love or happiness, there can be a withdrawing from loved ones, which is difficult to understand when what they want more than anything is reassurance
  • withdrawal - avoiding social and family contact
  • mental avoidance - avoiding thoughts to do with the event, people often try to push distressing thoughts out of their head, often unsuccessfully, and in the longer term this can cause further problems
  • behavioural avoidance - avoiding thoughts, feelings, activities that are reminders of the trauma, these can be often subtle at first, such as avoiding noisy or crowded environments, taking a different route to work, and so on
  • becoming ‘jumpy’ or easily startled by sudden noises or movements, such as a door slamming, the phone or doorbell ringing

Some individuals may also have certain bodily sensations, with or without the psychological reactions described above. Many of these symptoms are signs of anxiety, tension, or stress.

Some common physical reactions:

  • shakiness and trembling
  • tension and muscular aches (especially in the head and neck)
  • insomnia, tiredness, fatigue
  • poor concentration, forgetfulness
  • palpitations, breathing difficulties, dizziness
  • feelings of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea

What you can do

In the first few days after the traumatic event.

First of all, remember, it is normal to experience some distress after exposure to a major trauma. This may include difficulties in sleeping, distressing thoughts and memories popping into mind, nightmares, irritability, feelings of helplessness, reliving aspects of what has happened and thinking that you should have done more to help.

Seeking social support from family, friends and people that are trusted is important during the first few days.

Although talking about what happened can be helpful, you should not be forced to talk about your experiences. It may be more important for you to have quiet time to think things through. Do what works for you.

It has been shown to be helpful to talk to colleagues in a debriefing as this gives you an opportunity to organise what has happened into a coherent story which can reduce feelings of helplessness.

Trying to get back to the routine things in life can be helpful, for example having times for getting up, going to bed and eating can give a sense of normality to life.

Spiritual beliefs can be strengthened and tested by disasters. For some people, faith groups can be a source of support.

For parents and child carers providing open, honest and direct information to children about what is known and explanations of their own and other adult reactions they may have seen can be helpful.

In the following weeks and months.

Most people find their initial difficulties settle down and they can return to a more normal life within a few weeks.

For a few people, the problems persist or get more intense. It is important for you to contact your occupational health if your difficulties go on for longer than a month.

Sometimes there is a delay in the response to the trauma, the experience of “shock” and unreality allows a gradual intake of what happened – be aware of this.

People can begin to experience other difficulties such as avoiding people or places or developing panic attacks or anxiety when faced with reminders of what happened.

Promoting recovery - supporting others

It is very comforting to receive practical, social and emotional support from colleagues and others. It is important not to reject support by trying to appear strong or trying to cope completely on your own.
Talking to close colleagues or others who have had similar experiences, or understand what you have been through, is particularly important. You know yourself and the people you love best, so you are best placed to decide what works and is helpful for you.

If a colleague, friend, or family member approaches you for support.


  • be there to listen
  • make sure that they eat regular meals
  • encourage them to take some exercise - it may help for you to go with them
  • recognise that their anger, irritability, and upset is due to the incident although sometimes it may be directed to you
  • allow them to express strong feelings about the incident – this may include crying or anger
  • be aware that after a traumatic incident it is common to feel some guilt about the things that might have been done better
  • explain what is happening if you have children, in simple language


  • suggest that they would feel better if they went down to the pub
  • tell them that they should stop thinking about it Invite lots of people to the house to visit (a few close friends and family is okay)
  • expect them to be able to show loving feelings during the first week after the incident
  • encourage them to stay in the house (they need to go out and meet people)
  •  give them any un-prescribed medication
  • stop them going back to work (they will benefit from meeting colleagues

Simple resilience tools

Protection rituals

One way to protect yourself from the traumatic details of a case is to build a protection ritual.

Like any ritual, this will become stronger the more often it’s used. This ritual is made up of four main stages: preparation, working, leaving and re-engaging.

The preparation ritual
This involves seeing if there are any personal problems or issues that need to be handled before starting work. Think about the things you need to do or should have done. For example, this might be saying sorry for being grumpy with your partner before leaving for work. Write down what you need to do prior to starting work or if necessary, make the telephone call home. Do this outside the office and before you start work.
The work ritual
This involves reminding yourself of the purpose of the role and that you can ask for help if you lack knowledge or feel uncertain about the process. You also need to constantly monitor your physical wellbeing. If you feel tense or become sensitive to some aspect of your work, go for a walk or speak to a colleague.
The end of day closing ritual
This involves being aware of what you’ve achieved during the day and being mindful of what may still need to be done. Write down anything you feel you could have done better or found difficult. Also record anything that still needs to be done. Close the book, turn off the computer and leave the book locked in your drawer at work.
The re-engagement ritual
This can happen on the way home. You may think back to how things were when you left home and what it will be like to return. Think about what you enjoy, and what you would like to do when you get back. If any thoughts about work return during your time at home, take a piece of paper, write the thought down, fold the paper into four and put it next to the front door. This is so you can take it with you to work where it belongs.

Progressive relaxation

Progressive relaxation involves slowly tensing and then releasing each muscle group individually, starting with the muscles in your feet and legs and finishing with your head.

This tension can go unnoticed but if you use this exercise regularly you will find a reduction in the levels of stress and burnout.

STEP 1: tensing the muscles
Take a slow, deep breath and tense the muscles as hard as you can for five seconds. It’s important to really feel the tension in the muscles even when it causes some discomfort or shaking.

STEP 2: relaxing the tense muscles
After five seconds, let all the tightness flow out of the tensed muscles. Exhale as you do this. The muscles should be loose and limp as the tension flows out. It’s important to acknowledge the difference between the tension and relaxation. Remain in this relaxed state for about 15 seconds, then move on to the next muscle group. Repeat the tension-relaxation steps. After completing all the muscle groups, take some time to enjoy the deep state of relaxation.


How to tense muscle groups

  • Foot: curl your toes downward.
  • Lower leg and foot: tighten your calf muscle by pulling your toes towards you.
  • Entire leg: squeeze thigh muscles.
  • Hand: clench your fist.
  • Entire arm: clench your fist and pull your forearm towards your shoulder.
  • Buttocks: tighten by pulling your buttocks together. Stomach: suck your stomach in.
  • Chest: tighten by taking a deep breath.
  • Neck and shoulders: lift your shoulders up to touch your ears.
  • Mouth: open your mouth wide enough to stretch your jaw.
  • Eyes: clench your eyelids tightly shut



Deep breathing

Deep breathing each day can reduce anxiety and stress by increasing the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulating your nervous system to promote a state of calmness.

One of the simplest deep breathing exercises involves you breathing in to the count of seven seconds, holding your breath for seven seconds, and then breathing out to the count of seven seconds.

Repeat this deep breathing exercise at least five more times, concentrating on the feeling of the air going through your nostrils and into your lungs. Counting makes sure that you don’t over-breathe and cause dizziness, and helps clear your mind of random thoughts.

Breathing technique


Finding the time

If you have two minutes

  • Walk across the office and say hello to someone. 
  • Look out of the window and notice something different.
  • Get a drink.
  • Do the breathing exercise.

If you have five minutes

  • Send two people an email to thank them for something they have done for you.
  • Ask your team if they would like you to get them a drink.
  • Stop and chat to someone that you don’t know well.
  • Throw out any clutter in your workspace.

If you have 10 minutes

  • Tidy up your workspace.
  • Write down two things that would make your work more interesting.
  • Go for a walk outside.
  • Do the progressive relaxation exercise.

If you have 30 minutes

  • Go for lunch with your colleagues.
  • Go for a run or brisk walk in the park.
  • Organise a team event/competition