Combating Anxiety Disorders With Psychological Debriefing

Psychologists have relied on numerous methods, including psychological debriefing, to prevent the development of posttraumatic stress disorder. This disorder is classified as an anxiety disorder, and it affects individuals who have faced exposure to traumatic events, such as military combat, vehicular accidents, physical abuse or the death of a loved one. It leaves the afflicted individual with long-term phobias, recurring nightmares and emotional numbness, along with a host of other detrimental symptoms.

Supposed Benefits of Psychological Debriefing

Psychological debriefing is a tactic in critical incident stress management (CISM), which was designed with the intention of reducing the occurrence of posttraumatic stress disorder and other related anxiety disorders. However, studies have indicated that psychological debriefing may be less effective than originally intended.


Psychological debriefing may be administered to individuals or groups who have been exposed to traumatic events. For example, a group of people who witnessed the same plane crash may be called in for a debriefing. A psychological debriefing encompasses a single session that may last one to several hours depending on the complexity of the situation. The session is generally held in the days following the incident and is administrated by a professional team specializing in medical services.


While the steps involved in a psychological debriefing may vary depending on the model chosen by the administrators, most sessions tend to include the following phases:

  • The introduction phase allows administrating individuals to introduce themselves and explain the purpose and rules regarding the session.
  • The fact phase reveals core facts concerning the incident. During this phase, the group also aims to clear up any misconceptions or rumors.
  • The thought phase gives the group a chance to divulge emotions that were experienced during the incident.
  • The reaction phase allows the group a chance to review individual reactions to the disturbing event.
  • The symptom phase gives members an opportunity to examine psychological or physical effects of witnessing the incident.
  • The teaching phase seeks to educate the group on common anxiety disorders and ways to handle them.
  • The re-entry phase allows members to backtrack and address issues that require elaboration.

During the thought and reaction phases, members may come to discover that their individual emotions and reactions in response to the collectively experienced event were not uncommon. In this way, their experiences will be normalized.

Common Strategies

The administrating party may employ the following strategies during a debriefing session:

  • The meeting should be held in a private location, free of interruptions from the outside world. Accordingly, cell phones should be turned off and no one should be permitted to enter or leave in the middle of the session.
  • Each group should contain roughly 10 individuals, excluding the moderators. If the size of the group jeopardizes individual participation, the group should be broken into smaller units.
  • If possible, groups should be arranged with respect to the level of individuals’ exposure to the incident. For example, those who were nearest the incident should be in a separate group from those who experienced only brief exposure.
  • Victims should not be forced to talk; however, participation should be encouraged.

Additional Information

While the goal of psychological debriefing is to help individuals avoid anxiety disorders by normalizing their experiences, the sessions may prove ineffective or potentially harmful. However, this does not mean that those who are exposed to horrific events are destined to struggle with anxiety. A brief online search for psychological first aid strategies can reveal alternative solutions for posttraumatic stress disorder that may be more in-depth than psychological debriefing.