Debriefing Traumatic Events

Young depressed woman during her therapy session

In these times of profound, continuous stress, I thought it might be helpful to share some information about debriefing, which can be a very helpful skill to use with those we care about or work with, for our children, other family members and even ourselves.

 The website “Eye of the Storm, Inc.” offers an article entitled Diffusing/Debriefing and Psychological First Aid by John D. Weaver, LCSW.  He states the following: “Defusing is the term given to the process of talking it out – taking the fuse out of an emotional bomb (explosive situation). It involves allowing victims and workers the opportunity to ventilate about their disaster related memories, stresses, losses, and methods of coping, and to be able to do so in a safe and supportive atmosphere. The defusing process usually involves informal and impromptu sessions.”

With regard to psychological de-briefing, Weaver offers the following: “Psychological debriefing (PD) is often a good first step for helping people process their direct involvement with traumatic events. PD is a formal meeting, done individually or in small groups. It is generally held shortly after an unusually stressful incident, strictly for the purpose of dealing with the emotional residuals of the event. Any location that is large enough to accommodate the group, and which can be secured so as to assure privacy, is appropriate for use. This session may require a block of time that is several hours in length.”

Man talking and waving hands in therapy session with psychiatrist, psychologist, counselor.

These processes can also be used in family settings, perhaps when a parent realizes a child would benefit from opportunities to debrief from something traumatic or when a person realizes someone they care about is struggling to deal with something overwhelming. Teachers and others who work with children would benefit from being aware of the steps of debriefing. I think of how many times in recent months we each could benefit from being on the receiving end of a debriefing process as well as all the times we may have had opportunities to do this with others.

Weaver shares the following steps in the debriefing process. I will list them briefly, but you can read more on the site as Weaver expands on them.

Stage 1-Gentle invitation to engage in debriefing. An important note: no one should ever be forced to debrief if they’re not ready to do so. Premature debriefing can actually re-traumatize because it forces a person to remember and relive the traumatic experience when it is still very raw to them. They need to be in a place where they can be reflective without having to relive an experience. This is a very important judgment call. If the person looks like they are being overwhelmed by their own memories, the process should immediately stop.

Stage 2-Fact Phase: the debriefer invites the person to share facts about what happened.

Stage 3-Thought Phase: the debriefer invites the person to notice what they were thinking during this time.

Stage 4-Reaction Phase: the debriefer invites the person to consider their overall reactions to what happened.

Stage 5-Symptom Phase: the debriefer invites the person to become aware of some of the sensations they experienced.

Stage 6-Teaching Phase: the debriefer shares some information about trauma and the importance of being able to discharge traumatic energy.

Stage 7-Re-entry Phase: the debriefer invites the person to focus on being in the present and things they might know and want to engage in.

Close up of pensive biracial man thinking having problem

Debriefing in this way allows a person to become more objective about their experiences, own them, discharge any emotional aftermath and return to a state of equilibrium. They are now freer to be able to remember an experience without having to relive it and enables them to move on with their life.

During these highly stressful times, intentional debriefing can be a gift we give to others. While it is best done with the guidance of a debriefer, you can also do this by yourself to allow you to release the stresses caused by events around you and to give yourself the opportunity to move on to living your life with less stress.

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. Can you think of someone who has been through a highly stressful experience or just in general seems overwhelmed by all that is going on these days? How might you use the steps Weaver describes to help them debrief their experience?
  2. Imagine the stresses you have been under recently. How might you use these steps to help you debrief your own experiences?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute