Reactions to a critical event: the double “uniform” of rescuer and victim

Reactions to a critical event: the double “uniform” of rescuer and victim

It may happen that people who serve in particular emergency situations find themselves occupying two mirror roles, that of Rescuer and that of Victim, and thus find themselves having to deal with different physical, cognitive, emotional and behavioral reactions.

Alessandra Curtacci – OPEN SCHOOL, Cognitive Studies San Benedetto del Tronto


Every day different events occur caused by human distraction, by the unreliability of new technologies and / or by the destructive forces of nature. Every event arising from these circumstances constitutes an emergency, which can be considered both from a practical and technical point of view, and from a human point of view for its characteristics of drama and danger for the person who experiences it, forced to have to fight. for one’s “physical” and “psychological” survival. Greater attention is thus paid to the emotional and cognitive component of the subject involved which is fundamental for a good management of the situation and considered as an element capable of mitigating the effects of a probable negative context. An emergency can therefore also be defined from a psychological point of view as a situation in which a danger is present, understood as an uncontrollable event perceived as an impending threat, followed by the request for rapid activation and, above all, characterized by an important gap between the “need” and the “possibility of response” which can be activated immediately. The development of the ability to know how to manage states of emotional and psychological distress, their own and others, is fundamental for operators who are faced with problematic situations. Rescuers are often considered in the collective imagination as heroes capable of overcoming difficulties and bringing any type of situation back to normal, thanks to their preparation and experience. Often it is not considered that the person who wears that uniform, in particular adverse situations, finds himself playing a double role: that of Rescuer and that of Victim, see for example the great emergency events such as earthquakes. A circumstance that can put a strain on the rescuer split between two opposite poles: the professional one, characterized by the obligation of extreme concentration and lucidity, and the personal one in which there is an intense concern for safety and security. staff and loved ones.

It is possible to give a schematic description of the different responses that Rescuers can experience from the beginning to the final moment of an emergency event. Generally they are divided into reactions defined as normal or pathological.

The intervention of the operators can be divided into 4 phases, each of which is associated with specific reactions of the rescuer. In detail:

1) Alarm Phase, begins when the communication of an intervention to be carried out in an emergency situation arrives. Rescuers in this phase of impact experience various categories of reactions:

There is also no shortage of rescuers in whom a more or less severe inhibitory response is determined. The thoughts that overlap in this first phase directly concern the type of intervention that will be addressed, the conditions of the scenario, the material and the most suitable means and, more indirectly, could concern loved ones, such as children. , cohabitants (eg: where they could be in those moments, if they are places or streets frequented by them, etc.);

2) Mobilization phase, in which operators prepare for action. Acting helps to dissolve tension and the state of alarm, and also the interaction with colleagues, necessary to prepare and coordinate the intervention plans, favors the recovery of emotional self-control. In this phase, therefore, most of the experiences and reactions of the previous phase are present in a minor tone;

3) Action Phase, in which the transition to activity takes place. The various types of reactions that often occur in this phase can be grouped into the following categories:

4) Demobilization phase, the one in which the gradual return to normal work and social routine takes place. Two different types of emotional content characterize this phase. The first consists of the emotional load, which during the action phase was repressed and inhibited to give space to the rescue activity, and is mainly characterized by anxiety, possible disappointment, sadness, tension, the resurfacing of episodes and particularly experiences emotionally strong, anger. The second consists, instead, in a complex of experiences induced by the separation from the other rescuers, and by the positive or negative expectations regarding the return to everyday work and socio-affective life, such as the continuous desire to return home, the fear of conflict with the family and colleagues, the inconvenience due to backlog,

They can be consequent to the experimentation of particular highly stressful and involving risk situations both physically and emotionally in which the rescuer may be involved. They consist of problematic and more complex reactions.

Condition characterized by intense anxiety (understood as an emotion associated with a state of alarm regardless of whether the stimulus that causes it is real or mental, i.e. imagined or remembered). Anxiety, in general, can last for a few seconds to characterize entire life phases of those who experience it, but in the specific case of the acute anxiety crisis it develops rapidly and can lead in a short time to a state of significant severity in terms of symptomatology up to further problematic developments (eg: psychomotor agitation, panic crisis). An acute anxiety crisis is manifested by a series of symptoms that generally correspond to shortness of breath or a feeling of lack of air, increased heart rate, muscle tension and tremors.

Defined in this sense as induced by having to face specific situations that are a source of stress for the person. The subject shows signs and symptoms similar to the acute anxiety crisis, and in the proximity of the feared event some symptoms are prominent, such as tachycardia and palpitations, increased sweating and related fears (eg: disappointing important reference figures, losing control in public).

Intended as a condition that could manifest itself during exposure to unusual stimuli and conditions, such as the presence of fire or other dangerous elements and exposure to difficult physical environments. Being exposed to such tests can provoke different reactions: avoiding the situation in a systematic way, displaying an excessively confident approach, manifestations of fear and panic, up to the full awareness of one’s fears and therefore extreme caution and commitment in the realization of the ‘target.

All the factors described, if not adequately taken into account, can lead to more or less severe stress reactions, which in emergency conditions can be defined as normal, but which must still be kept under control. These reactions can be both immediate and protracted over time:

Despite what has been described, Rescuers, thanks to specific training and previous experience, apply functional strategies that promote the protection of their own physical and psychological well-being and at the same time that of the victim. Everyone, due to certain personal characteristics, can be more or less exposed to the potential development of psychological problems of a different nature if forced to face a highly stressful and potentially life-threatening event, and to show different types of more or less problematic reactions. during the rescue phase. All of this could be amplified in the unfortunate situation where the operator is involved in an emergency both as a victim and as a rescuer.