The 7 Steps Of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing & How It Supports Trauma Recovery

Updated October 6, 2022by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Following a critical and life-changing event, individuals often struggle to regain a sense of normalcy and safety which can impact their mental health. Professional mental health help, like online therapy, is sometimes necessary to help people cope. One way that therapists and counselors support trauma survivors is with the seven steps of critical incident stress debriefing.

Critical incident stress debriefing (CISD) is a step-by-step process that promotes resiliency and recovery for individuals who have been exposed to high levels of stress and/or trauma. Later in this article, we'll cover the seven steps of CISD and the intervention's effectiveness. First, we'll provide a brief overview and history of this recovery method, identify the different types of critical incidents, and outline common symptoms and reactions.

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What Is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing?

Following trauma exposure, an individual experiences one or more aspects of physical and psychological symptoms that can affect their mental health. According to the American Journal of Managed Care, CISD is a practice that allows survivors to both process and reflect on the traumatic events they've experienced and gain personal control around the incident.

Ideally, stress debriefing should occur shortly after the traumatic event to increase the method's effectiveness. It's recommended that incident stress debriefing (CISD) occur within the first 24 to 72 hours to provide the greatest support to the trauma survivor. Prompt treatment is also considered crucial since symptoms and reactions may take time to surface. However, there are still major benefits to receiving treatment even if the event happened a long time ago.

What Defines A Critical Incident?

Anyone who has experienced trauma or a catastrophic event may benefit from CISD intervention. Author and researcher, Joseph A. Davis, PhD, identifies the following events and situations as "critical incidents," all of which may be helped with this type of stress debriefing:

  • Sudden death
  • Occupational safety crisis
  • Incidents involving children
  • Serious injury
  • A threat to an individual's physical and/or psychological safety and wellbeing
  • A distressing situation or event that profoundly changes or disrupts an individual's physical or psychological functioning

Individuals who endure any of the above-mentioned incidents are likely to experience a menagerie of long-term and short-term emotions, mental health symptoms, and reactions, which we'll cover later in this article.

Recognizing and accepting the need for help following a traumatic event can lead to healing and restored hope. CISD by a trained professional helps individuals process traumatic experiences in a one-on-one or group settings. Stress debriefing also allows the trauma survivor to reflect on the incident's impact.

CISD provides a bridge from the traumatic event to hope, healing, and recovery by giving the survivor a voice, offering closure, and allowing the individual to live with a restored sense of security and overall wellbeing.

Symptoms And Reactions That May Require Critical Incident Stress Debriefing

According to Davis, trauma reactions are quite common among survivors. Short-term reactions which affect an individuals mental health are sometimes referred to as "cataclysms of emotion," which is a good description of the wide range of emotions an individual may experience. Common emotional responses include:

  • Shock
  • Traumatic stress
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Rage
  • Anxiety
  • Moodiness
  • Sadness
  • Sorrow
  • Grief
  • Depression
  • Confusion
  • Blame
  • Shame
  • Humiliation
  • Guilt
  • Grief
  • Frustration
  • Fear
  • Terror
  • Hypervigilance
  • Paranoia
  • Phobia
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Homicidal ideation

If you or a loved one are experiencing suicidal thoughts, reach out for help immediately. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255, and is available 24/7.

Common physical symptoms include:

  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Eating disturbances
  • Muscle tremors
  • Nightmares
  • Flashbacks
  • Profuse sweating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Some of these symptoms immediately follow the critical incident, while others surface over time. If these reactions become chronic, individuals may begin to use drugs and/or alcohol in an effort to cope with the trauma. For immediate help and support with substance use, don’t hesitate to call SAMHSA National Helpline : (800)662-4357.

Absenteeism and decreased productivity are common if individuals are not empowered with coping and management skills following the critical incident.

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When Is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Helpful?

Critical incident stress management was developed to provide a safe, open, and non-judgmental space for trauma survivors, enabling each participant to their initial reactions and emotions following a critical incident. CISD is intended to provide ongoing support to a small group to help those in need with the recovery process and prioritize the trauma survivors well being for a healthy long-term future. The group sessions can reduce trauma impact for those experiencing post traumatic stress disorder, help survivors recover, and identify those participants who require additional support and follow up services.

Those in careers whose occupational safety is often at risk like rescue and emergency workers, police officers, firefighters, disaster workers, and military personnel, can also benefit from this debriefing. While it's important to provide relief to the victims, service providers who experience trauma are often forgotten and may often experience survivor guilt. CISD was initially created to provide help for these individuals who may experience occupational safety hazards or industrial disasters.

CISD is typically facilitated in a group format and led by a trained professional who facilitates a psychological debriefing. Facilitators are medical professionals who have been certified by the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA).

As mentioned earlier, it is recommended that these debriefing sessions occur within 24 to 72 hours of the traumatic event. Groups may meet over the course of several days, but for no more than two hours per session each day. This allows survivors to process their experience without becoming overwhelmed.

During these group sessions, the facilitator helps participants understand their emotional reactions, validates their responses, and provides stress management tools and resources for continued support. Although similar to a therapy session, CISD is not intended to replace individual or group therapy.

The 7 Steps Of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing

Dr. J. T. Mitchell explained the concept of CISD and its steps in a 1983 study published in the Journal of Emergency Medical Services, titled "When Disaster Strikes: The Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Process."

The following seven steps make up the stress debriefing process, as outlined by Mitchell's fellow scholar, Joseph A. Davis, Ph.D.:

  1. Assess the Impact of the Critical Incident on Support Personnel and Survivors

The facilitator makes his or her assessment as the participants introduce themselves and their initial statements, making note of key information, such as individuals' ages, their involvement in the incident, and their own point of view. As the discussion continues, the facilitator is better able to make an accurate assessment of each participant.

  1. Identify Immediate Issues Surrounding Problems Involving Safety and Security

Through prompts and questioning, the group's facilitator gains a better understanding of individuals' perceived sense of safety and security, which can vanish instantly when sudden tragedy or loss strikes.

  1. Use Defusing to Allow for the Ventilation of Thoughts, Emotions, and Experiences Associated with the Event, and Provide Validation of Possible Reactions

Having a safe space to talk about a critical event and its aftermath can be incredibly therapeutic in and of itself, as it helps participants process their emotions and come to terms with their trauma. The facilitator should provide a safe, non-judgmental space for reflecting and processing. During this stage, the facilitator validates each person's unique experience and reactions, assuring participants that their responses to the traumatic event are valid and normal.

  1. Predict Future Events and Reactions in the Aftermath of the Incident

Participants are further supported by being made aware of possible reactions that may surface as the days, weeks, and months progress, including emotional reactions, physical symptoms, and psychological changes. This knowledge empowers trauma survivors to plan for the future with crisis intervention.

  1. Conduct a Systematic Review of the Critical Incident and Its Emotional, Cognitive, and Physical Impact on Survivors, and Look for Maladaptive Behaviors or Responses to the Crisis or Trauma

When observing participants' moods, word choices, perceptions, and thoughts, the facilitator remains alert to any maladaptive behaviors that might inhibit a survivor's ability to recover and cope with physical or psychological reactions. Common maladaptive behaviors include substance abuse, avoidance, withdrawal, and anxiety turning to anger.

  1. Bring Closure to the Incident, and Anchor or Ground the Individual to Community Resources to Initiate the Rebuilding Process

As stated previously, CISD is not intended to be the survivor's main source of treatment. Therefore, it's important that group participants learn about other resources available to them.

  1. Debriefing Assists in the Re-Entry Process into the Community or Workplace

After completing the CISD process, survivors may be better equipped to regain their sense of safety, security, and wellbeing, allowing them to return to normal life with greater equanimity and reduced stress.

Is Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Effective?

Research suggests the effectiveness of critical incident stress debriefing is inconclusive. But one study demonstrates that survivors who received critical incident stress management within the first 24 to 72 hours following a critical incident had fewer reactions and less psychological trauma than those who had no follow up or disaster response. And other studies indicate that emergency, rescue, police, and fire personnel had an increased risk of developing psychological and physical symptoms without critical incident stress management.

Opposing the above-mentioned research, some experts believe CISD is ineffective. There is some evidence to support their view. One study found that individuals who underwent CISD struggled more than those who received no treatment, possibly because the debriefing process interferes with an individual's natural emotional processing.

Another study found that immediate intervention led trauma survivors to heavily rely on professional help. And some research suggests that CISD is unnecessary, as most individuals completely resolve their symptoms within three months of a traumatic event without professional care. Perhaps more objective scientific research is required to better understand just how helpful CISD can be for trauma survivors.

Resources For Trauma Survivors

There are many helpful resources for individuals who have experienced trauma. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has published an excellent guide to coping with grief after a disaster or traumatic event. This free, informative resource outlines the steps to coping with grief, and includes contact information for nationally recognized organizations.

The Disaster Distress Helpline offers 24-hour crisis counseling and crisis intervention for individuals who have been affected by natural or human-caused disasters. The helpline is multilingual, confidential, and completely free. You can reach a trained professional by calling 1-800-985-5990 or texting TalkWithUs to 66746.

Trauma survivors can also find helpful information and support via the American Psychiatric Association. This helpful guide lists steps for reducing tragedy-related stress, along with a section dedicated to helping children who have experienced trauma. There are also several links to resources for managing stress, recovering after specific events, and dealing with grief.

For those with an immediate threat, it’s important to seek help right away by calling your local emergency number. Emergency responders can help those in immediate danger.

How Online Therapy Can Help

If you have experienced trauma—either recently or years ago—an online therapist can help. They may administer CISD, or they may adopt a different approach. Regardless, when it comes to treating trauma, online therapy has been shown to engender a high degree of collaboration between counselor and patient. The extent to which therapist and patient work together, otherwise known as ‘working alliance,’ determine how effective treatment will be.

While CISD can be helpful, it should be utilized in addition to individual therapy, either in-person or online. BetterHelp offers convenient, confidential, affordable counseling services to help you process traumatic events and start moving forward. Scores of licensed professionals are available to help you address your trauma. Below, you'll find some reviews of BetterHelp therapists, from people experiencing similar issues.

Counselor Reviews

"Dr. Cooley was able to identify my needs and address appropriate therapy. I no longer have PTSD events that are not manageable. He has give me tools and resources to deal with my issues. I became brave enough to make positive change in my life and found I could experience joy and genuine love."

"Brandon has been great and really instrumental in helping me get through a difficult period in my life. He is nonjudgmental, responsive and a great listener. He is also great at reading into what you are saying and finding the underlying cause of your fears and helping you work through it. I'm excited to continue the work to heal with the help of Brandon."


Recovery from trauma is possible. By seeking the help you deserve, you can begin to replace fear with hope and happiness. Take the first step.

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