Building your Own Emotional Resilience as a Security Trainer

Credits Craig Higson-Smith Last Updated 2014-08

The impact of any training program depends upon the participants’ ability to integrate new information and use that information effectively. Security training emotionally challenges both trainers and trainees in many interesting ways. The study of fear is a deep and thought-provoking area, and as trainers, we learn about ourselves and about those we teach.

By Craig Higson-Smith, of the Center for Victims of Torture

Avoid the pitfalls of burnout and vicarious traumatization.

The impact of any training program depends upon the participants’ ability to integrate new information and use that information effectively. Too often, participants attend excellent security training programs, but then fail to implement what they have learned. Therefore, it is imperative that trainers explore those factors that motivate participants to learn and use new skills, as well as factors that might hinder this process. Technical experts who do not take the time to understand the psychology of the people they are training will ultimately fail as teachers.

Security training emotionally challenges both trainers and trainees in many interesting ways. The study of fear is a deep and thought-provoking area, and as trainers, we learn about ourselves and about those we teach.

Building your own Emotional Resilience

The previous discussion of traumatic stress reactions revealed that it is not necessary to directly experience a traumatic event to suffer an emotional impact - indirect, or vicarious, exposure to life-threatening events can also cause distress. One form of indirect exposure is listening to the detailed story of a traumatic event as told by the survivor. As human beings, we place ourselves in the situation of the victim, imagining such things happening to us personally, and in doing so may pick up some small part of the traumatic effect ourselves.

Any person whose work exposes them to many stories and pictures of traumatic events is at an increased risk of indirect exposure to traumatic stress. This includes psychologists, counselors, journalists, nurses, paramedics, as well as police officers and other emergency personnel. The list also includes security trainers who listen to many frightening encounters in the course of their teaching work.

The risk is particularly great when working with “high pressure” groups, that is, those groups where the majority of people are in the Orange Zone or Red Zone of the Anxiety Pressure Gauge.

Emotional Risk to Trainers

This emotional risk to trainers when increasingly exposed to indirect traumatic stress is two pronged, as detailed here.


Burnout refers to long-term exhaustion caused by working too hard, for too long, and without sufficient support. It has been linked to a range of emotional and physical health problems, as well as poor performance in the workplace. While exposure to threats or trauma is not a necessary feature of burnout, more emotionally demanding responsibilities place workers at greater risk. The prevention of burnout requires a two-part strategy:

  • First, organizations must ensure a healthy work environment; appropriate levels of training, supervision, and support; reachable expectations and targets; as well as regular vacation time.
  • Second, individuals should educate themselves as to the risk of burnout, monitor their own emotional health, and actively sustain their own emotional health. The prevention of burnout is a shared responsibility between employer and employee.

When an employee is suffering from burnout (that is, when prevention has failed), the key to recovery is rest. It is essential that the employee take time away from work to recover their emotional health. During this period, it is important to examine and redesign the work situation that led to the problem in the first place. In addition, stress management training might help prevent future recurrence.

Vicarious Traumatization

Vicarious traumatization refers to traumatic stress arising from exposure to the frightening experiences of others - other labels are sometimes applied to this condition, including secondary traumatic stress and compassion fatigue. While not identical, these different labels represent different conceptual approaches to the same underlying problem.

In most cases, vicarious traumatization shares the features of the traumatic stress reaction. Sufferers may experience intrusive thoughts and worries relating to the stories that they have heard, or may avoid those aspects of their work that involve exposure to the fear and distress of others. People suffering vicarious traumatization may become anxious and irritable, or isolate themselves from others. In some cases, vicarious traumatization takes the form of a loss of faith in the essential goodness of others and a growing sense that one’s work is meaningless.

The prevention of vicarious traumatization requires limiting exposure to distressing stories, or increasing the capacity to process traumatic material.

While the former may be difficult for many people due to the demands of their jobs, regular supervision and ongoing support is helpful for the latter. When a worker is suffering from vicarious traumatization (that is, prevention has failed), counseling is indicated. People suffering from vicarious traumatization need an opportunity to process the traumatic material that is affecting them - they need to work out which aspects of the stories are upsetting to them and why.

Burnout and vicarious trauma are often experienced together.

In this case, it is best that the person engage in some supportive counseling before taking a long vacation or time off from work. When people with vicarious trauma take time off work without first receiving some counseling, they waste their time away from work trying and failing to sort out the upsetting thoughts and feelings on their own. They do not resolve the vicarious trauma, and they do not rest.

Monitoring Yourself for Burnout and Vicarious Traumatic Stress

Various self-report questionnaires exist to help you assess and monitor your changing levels of burnout and vicarious traumatization. The Professional Quality of Life scale (ProQOL) is one of the best-tested and most widely used assessments.

What is the ProQOL?

The ProQOL is designed to be used by a range of people whose work requires them to have regular contact with those experiencing high levels of threat and trauma, and comprises 30 items that are answered using a five-point scale. This scale represents the frequency with which the respondent has experienced each item in the last 30 days, from:

  • (1) representing Never, to…
  • (5) representing Very Often.

Make It Relevant to You

The items of the ProQOL often include the word [help] - this word is placed in brackets to indicate that respondents should change it to suit their particular work responsibilities. For example, item two of the scale reads: “I am preoccupied with more than one person I [help]”. In this instance, security trainers should substitute the word train for help, so that the item would read: “I am preoccupied with more than one person I train.” In this way, you can adjust the ProQOL to be more relevant to your field of work.

Scoring Yourself

Simple scoring instructions are included on the second page of the assessment. The ProQOL produces three scores:

Compassion Satisfaction

…refers to how meaningful and important the respondent’s work feels.

Secondary Traumatic Stress

…offers a measure of the negative emotional impact of the respondent’s work, and is most closely associated with vicarious traumatization as explained above.


…is a measure of the emotional exhaustion currently being experienced by the respondent.

Context Considerations

Although the ProQOL offers cutoff points for interpretation, different cultures and different contexts require different norms. Some people prefer to use the ProQOL in a more comparative manner. To do this, self-administer the ProQOL on a monthly or quarterly basis and watch for any changes in your scores. By doing this, you are not only comparing yourself to normal population data, but also to your own baseline.

This is a useful way of picking up any changes in your emotional health or work satisfaction.

Practical Steps for Building your Emotional Resilience as a Security Trainer

Taking care of your emotional health is the responsibility of every security trainer and is something that should be approached thoughtfully. Not only will active self-care strategy improve your health and emotional well-being, it will also make you a more successful trainer.

Below are sets of practical steps for building your emotional resilience as a security trainer, divided into the 3 common “phases” of the training cycle:

Before Training

  • Schedule trainings sensibly to allow for recovery time between workshops.
  • Allow time to recover from travel fatigue and jet lag before beginning a training.
  • Some trainers can train well with little preparation, but pay the price in increased stress - be prepared well ahead of the workshop.
  • Arrive at the venue a day early to ensure that the training equipment works and that the room is set up to your satisfaction.
  • Tell colleagues that you are running a training, and that you will not be available on other projects during the course of the training.
  • Work with a co-trainer that you trust and enjoy, especially with large groups or with participants in the Orange Zone

During Multi-day Training Workshops

  • Arrive at the venue early each day so that you have time for last-minute preparation and adjustments.
  • Monitor the “pressure” of the group so that you know how much stress and vicarious trauma you are going to be absorbing.
  • Eat well during trainings. Go for smaller helpings of higher energy foods, and take some snack bars into the training room with you.
  • Drink lots of water and fruit juice, and avoid alcohol.
  • Use the pressure lowering techniques discussed previously to contain the group and yourself.
  • Give yourself 30 minutes in the middle of the day away from workshop participants.
  • Review the training day, write any notes, and prepare for the next day immediately after each training day.
  • Talk about any distressing parts of the training with a someone you trust. The sooner any vicarious trauma gets processed, the better.
  • Do some light exercise in the evenings after training.
  • Give yourself 90 minutes in the evenings away from workshop participants.
  • Limit the work you do on other projects in the evening.
  • Be in touch with friends and family.
  • Be in bed before 10 pm.

Immediately After Training is Completed

  • Complete any post-training tasks (e.g., reports) done immediately after the training, even though you are tired.
  • Take some time to rest and recover.
  • Take the ProQOL and see how you are doing.
  • Identify any unresolved traumatic material—those stories or pictures that haven’t left you.
  • Talk to your co-trainer, supervisor, or a trusted friend about this material.
  • If necessary, speak to a counselor about unresolved traumatic material.

Additional Resources