Stress and Traumatic Stress Reactions in Security Training

Credits Craig Higson-Smith Last Updated 2014-08

The impact of any training program depends upon the participants’ ability to integrate new information and use that information effectively. Security training emotionally challenges both trainers and trainees in many interesting ways. The study of fear is a deep and thought-provoking area, and as trainers, we learn about ourselves and about those we teach.

By Craig Higson-Smith, of the Center for Victims of Torture

A natural part of the way human beings respond to challenge and danger.

Stress and traumatic stress reactions are a natural part of the way human beings respond to challenge and danger. Because security trainings are essentially about our responses to danger, a deeper understanding of both healthy and unhealthy stress reactions is essential for trainers.

Stress Reactions

As people go through life they develop certain coping skills with which to overcome the challenges and stressors that the world throws at them - different people use different strategies to cope, and some are healthier than others. Most people would agree that drinking alcohol to forget our problems is an unhealthy way of coping; other strategies, such as getting support from family and friends, or sitting down and working out a solution to the problem, would be considered healthy.

Some people develop a greater overall coping capacity than others; therefore, to assess the stress that a person might be feeling, one must consider both the range of stressors that the person is currently facing as well as their coping capacity. People with greater coping capacity remain happy and productive even when facing a great deal of challenge in their lives, while others may be less fortunate. When the challenges of life outweigh our capacity to cope, we begin to feel distress and we become less effective. At the far end of this continuum is the state of panic. This happens when our coping capacity is totally overwhelmed and we stop responding effectively altogether.

Importantly, some stress is healthy.

We all know the feeling when we are stimulated by challenging problems, when we are working hard and well and the fruits of our labor are evident. In this state, we experience the optimal level of challenge for our personal coping capacity: some people enjoy greater challenge and stimulation, while others prefer less. Past experience has shown that many people attending digital security trainings live with a higher degree of challenge on a daily basis. They are often quite stressed and may find it difficult to be completely present in the training room, which many trainers can find extremely frustrating.

Experienced security trainers have found it useful to spend more time at the beginning of the training talking about this problem: it is useful to acknowledge that everyone in the room is very busy and has many commitments. Having acknowledged this, the trainer is in a position to invite participants to try to be fully present in the room; more specifically, this means creating and maintaining strong group norms around better information security practices during class time.

While many human rights defenders multi-task very effectively in the course of their everyday work, this practice is not helpful when trying to integrate new information and develop new skills. Of all the different kinds of challenges that life throws at us, those that threaten our actual safety are the most difficult with which to cope. These are the events that push our coping capacity to the limit, and the events that trigger our traumatic stress reactions.

Healthy Traumatic Stress Reactions

Not only have Homo sapiens developed highly sophisticated survival behaviors (as discussed previously), we have also evolved powerful mechanisms for adaptive recovery after we have been attacked or injured. The trick is to avoid further danger by using our big brains to learn about the threat, so that future encounters might be handled more effectively.

Human beings are hard-wired to be natural security analysts.

We are designed to automatically, and even subconsciously, analyze and learn from past dangers. This is the function of a healthy traumatic stress response, and to be successful three things must happen simultaneously:

Remaining Alert

We remain unusually alert and ready to respond to threat for about six weeks following a threatening event. We sleep lightly, startle easily, scan our environments continually for danger, and may be very quick to anger or easily frightened. In other words, we are ready for trouble and our survival responses are always lurking just below the surface.

Associating and Avoiding

We avoid everything that might be associated with the threat. Until we have figured out this new danger, it is best to steer clear of anything that might be connected to it, no matter how tangentially. We avoid anything that reminds us of the attack, especially activities, places, and people that are associated with it.

Review and Process

When we feel safe, we go over and over the traumatic event in our memory and thoughts, trying to make sense of it. Why did this happen? Where did it happen? Were there any warning signs that should be remembered? Did we do anything to invite this attack? Did we do anything to exacerbate it? Did our survival response work, or is a different response needed in the future? We think about the attack constantly, relive the sights, sounds, and smells, and talk about it with trusted allies.

All of this drives a learning process designed to make us safer in future.

These three components of the healthy traumatic stress reaction describe a human being coming to terms with a life-threatening event.

The process is distressing because it involves contemplating our own mortality, but is nonetheless indispensable to our survival. Typically this reaction lasts four to six weeks, during which time the distress gradually reduces. The simple explanation offered above can be very helpful for making sense of the suffering. People working through a healthy traumatic stress reaction need support, understanding, and a sense of safety. Counselling is seldom required.

It is not uncommon for digital security trainings to include participants who have recently survived a life-threatening experience. As such, these people might be experiencing a healthy traumatic stress reaction that is likely to be triggered by some of the content of a security training. As a result, they could become distressed in the classroom - the Red Zone describes people in this group.

Trainers should facilitate conversations in a way that minimizes distress, while upholding each individual’s dignity.

Additional support can be provided in private and in ways that are respectful of privacy. The list of “Do’s and Don’ts” when facilitating conversations about difficult material applies here.

Unhealthy Traumatic Stress Reactions

Sadly, and for a variety of reasons, the healthy traumatic stress reaction can fail — this happens when the distress is not adaptive and does not reduce with time. When this happens, mental health professionals speak of trauma-related disorders. Although Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most well known of the trauma-related disorders, there are in fact several others.

A brief description of some of these is provided here:

Acute Stress Disorder (ASD)

…is characterized by extreme anxiety, distress, and dissociation in the weeks immediately following a life-threatening event. People suffering ASD often report feeling strange, dreamy, or as though they are not quite present in their bodies (de-personalization), and may not be able to remember parts of the traumatic experience.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)

…is characterized by lasting intrusive memories, thoughts, and images of the life-threatening event, avoidance of reminders of the event, avoidance of thinking about or remembering the event, as well as a generally feeling unsafe and anxious.

Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

…is characterized by lasting emotional disregulation such as persistent sadness or explosive anger, dissociative episodes similar to those described under ASD, feelings of intense shame and guilt, preoccupation with the perpetrator or with revenge, and loss of trust in other human beings. Note that Complex PTSD is not yet formally recognized as a psychiatric disorder.

Traumatic Bereavement (or Prolonged Grief) Disorder

…is associated with the sudden and violent death of a loved one and is characterized by continuous sadness and unameliorated yearning for the deceased more than a year after the death.

…is characterized by severe and persistent sadness, crying, social withdrawal, fatigue, and loss of energy following a life-threatening event.

…involves the unhealthy use of alcohol, marijuana, amphetamines, sleeping pills, and over-the-counter medications. These drugs may initially be used as a way of coping with the symptoms of PTSD or other trauma related conditions.

It is not the role of security trainers to diagnose emotional or psychiatric conditions.

However, it is helpful to be able to recognize when a traumatic reaction is no longer healthy or adaptive. These descriptions are included to emphasize the point that exposure to life-threatening events can affect people in many different ways.

Do’s and Don’ts for Traumatic Stress Reactions & Emotional Disorders

Below is a list of do’s and don’ts for the security trainer who believes that a participant may be suffering from an emotional disorder:


  • Limit the person’s exposure to stories, images, and conversations that are upsetting to them.
  • Help the person to stay present through distraction and physical activities.
  • Reassure the person that he or she is currently physically safe.
  • Reassure the person that he or she can choose how they wish to participate in the training if at all.
  • Protect the person’s privacy and dignity (for example, do not “single” the person out in front of other participants while attempting to support them in the classroom).
  • Stop others from invading the person’s privacy.


  • Provide them with basic information about traumatic stress as described in this module.
  • Respectfully and gently suggest that they seek professional assistance.
  • Provide them with links to good mental health information online.
  • Put them in touch with a local mental health professional with experience in traumatic stress.
  • Follow up with distressed people privately to see if they would like further support.


  • Ask questions about their traumatic experiences.
  • Ask questions about their emotional health, either historically or in the present.
  • Offer meaningless platitudes.
  • Offer any kind of mental health advice or diagnosis.
  • Suggest any medication, even homeopathic.
  • Over-react to their distress and in so doing make it worse.
While emotionally healthy people may benefit from talking about past traumatic events in a thoughtful and constructive way, those suffering from an emotional disorder typically do not.

Unfortunately, and in severe cases, participation in security training may be psychologically harmful to a person suffering from a trauma-related disorder. When asked to think about a traumatic experience, less healthy participants may have their coping capacity overwhelmed - when this happens, they will be unable to learn and their trauma-related condition may in fact be exacerbated. To prevent this and to ensure that we Do No Harm, security trainers should allow people with emotional disorders to self-select themselves out of training courses, and if people ask to leave a workshop in the middle for emotional reasons, they should be encouraged to do so.

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