Understanding and managing your stress



Left unmanaged, stress, regardless of its type or source, can result negative physical and mental health consequences. Just as it is helpful to recognize both the types and sources of stress and the signs and symptoms of stress reactions, it is helpful to be informed about effective strategies and techniques for managing stress.

Because stress affects us both physically and mentally, it is important to manage stress with a balanced and blended approach. General recommendations for active stress management include a range of different behaviors. The concept of active stress management is based on the idea that stress management activities should begin before an individual begins to experience the signs and symptoms of stress, and be ongoing.


We tend to think of stress as a negative reaction to pressure. Stress is the body’s natural reaction in response to a physical and/or emotional challenge. Stress is a natural and normal response and is not always a negative experience. Positive life events and well as negative ones can create a stress response to meet the challenges of a new situation.

Stress can be positive in activating a person’s body, mind and energy. It can be defined as an individual’s capacity to mobilize every resource the body has to react promptly and adequately to any given situation. However, if stress lasts too long, the body’s resources will be exhausted and the person will develop harmful or negative forms of stress reactions. To best manage the effects of stress, it is helpful to recognize its various forms and sources.

Baseline stress

Day-to-day living can be stressful in even the best of times. Dealing with routine issues at home and on the job produce an ongoing, but usually manageable level of “baseline” or underlying stress. Baseline stress may be caused by various sources of tensions at the individual, emotional, family or social levels. It may be increased by changes in the day-to-day environment (being away from family without adequate communication, working with new people from different cultures, uncertainty about work, new information to assimilate, etc.). Staff Members need to be prepared for this and learn how to develop strategies to cope with it. Basic stress normally decreases after the first few weeks of a new assignment. 

Acute stress

Acute Stress reactions are our body’s reaction to a real or perceived threat to our wellbeing, be it physical or psychological. Acute stress prepares the body to protect itself, and represents a survival function.

Cumulative stress

When high levels of stress are constant or ongoing, they may result in a cumulative or chronic stress response. Cumulative stress can build up, often unrecognized, over a period of time. This type of stress can easily become can become uncomfortable and physically and mentally unhealthy when it occurs too often, lasts too long and is too severe. It is important to note that what is distressful for one person may not necessarily be distressful for another. Your individual perception, i.e. the degree of threat you feel and the amount of control you have over the circumstances, can affect the degree of distress you personally experience. We know from stress research that the single most stressful experience most people have is to feel that they cannot control their circumstances.

Critical Incident stress

  • A Critical Incident is defined as an event out of the range a normal experience — one which is sudden and unexpected, makes you lose control, involves the perception of a threat to life and can include elements of physical or emotional loss. Such incidents may include natural disasters, multiple-casualty accidents, sexual or other types of assault, death of a child, hostage-taking, suicide, a traumatic death in family, duty-related death of a co-worker and war-related civilian deaths.
  • Although a critical incident may occur at anytime, anywhere, there are certain occupational groups that are at an increased risk of exposure to traumatic events. These include fire-fighters, emergency health-care workers, police officers, search and rescue personnel, disaster relief and humanitarian aid workers, and United Nations peacekeepers, staff members, observers and monitors. Critical Incident Stress reactions are a combination of acute responses to violence, trauma and threats to life. These require immediate attention from colleagues and the organization.


Baseline, cumulative and acute stress are the most frequent form of stress encountered in field work. Critical incident stress is a response to less frequent, but more powerful life experiences.

The effects of stress on our physical and mental health, as well as our relationships at home and work should not be underestimated. Although stress is, to a large extent, inherent infield work, staff must ensure that it remains within reasonable limits, taking into account the prevailing circumstances.

It is important to realize that feelings of distress in yourself and others are legitimate and not signs of personal weakness or lack of professionalism. Take the responsibility for noticing the signs and symptoms showing that your coping mechanisms are overloaded and ensure that you get support, not only to deal with the signs and symptoms of stress that are emerging within you, but also to identify and tackle the cause of the stress.

The most common signs of stress include: 





A number of group techniques have been developed by professionals to assist emergency services personnel, such as ambulance drivers and firefighters, to deal with critical incident stress. You are strongly advised to attend the sessions available at your duty station. 

To contact a Staff Counsellor in global duty stations, click here or write to scolearn@un.org.


Psychological first aid (PFA) is a ‘humane, supportive response to a fellow human being who is suffering and who may need support. It is an approach to helping people affected by an emergency, disaster or traumatic event. It includes basic principles of support to promote natural recovery. Psychological first aid aims to reduce initial distress, meet current needs, promote flexible coping and encourage adjustment.

Usually provided in the immediate wake of a violent or traumatic event, psychological first aid can be thought of as a form of “buddy care” or emotional support offered to the affected staff member by others who are right on scene or quickly able to respond. Psychological first aid is as natural, necessary and accessible as medical first aid. Psychological first aid is no more complicated than assisting people with emotional distress resulting from an accident, injury or sudden shocking event.

The purpose of psychological first aid is to help stabilize the emotional impact of the incident, provide support and basic needs, and connect the affected individual with information and resources to management the emotions and behaviors resulting from the experience.

When helping others after a critical incident

  • Listen carefully
  • Spend time with the affected person
  • Offer your assistance and listening ear
  • Reassure them that they are safe and that their reactions are normal
  • Help them with routine tasks like cleaning, cooking and caring for the family
  • Allow them some private time
  • Do not take their anger (or other feelings) personally
  • Tell them you are sorry such an event has happened and you want to understand and help them
  • Call for help or support as soon as you feel you need it