A word on adrenaline, humanitarian emergencies and news

REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

I have noticed that in the last day or so, as the fighting between Russia and Georgia has abated, that the total number of visitors to Aid Worker Daily has begun to decline and that those currently sifting through the posts are mostly interested in technology related information.  I take this as a good sign.

At the beginning of any humanitarian crisis there is a tendency for the adrenaline to start pumping and for hyper vigilance to set in.  I think this is a completely natural response and while it serves a distinct purpose, in the case of aid workers it allows us to do an incredible amount of work in extremely difficult situations with little to no sleep, it is not sustainable and eventually the body will ‘check out’.  I have often noted that the best field workers I know are always aware of when they are about to check out and they usually tell you in an eerily calm and even voice (albeit with bloodshot eyes and a slight tremble) “Ok, that’s it.  I am done.  Get me on the next plane out.”  There are no questions after that, no debate, you simply say, “Ok, why don’t you have a cup of coffee and I’ll start working on the tickets.”

This is a skill that is learned over time and one that, I think, must be mastered if you want to continue working in the aid industry for any length of time.  By ‘checking oneself out’ you are keeping yourself from completely breaking down and  ensuring your continued mental and physical survival.  After a period of recuperation you will then be able to respond to the next emergency because, sadly enough, there will always be another emergency.  It is akin to athletes pacing themselves or a soldier sleeping between engagements.  It is typically a skill best learned by simply doing it although I think the attrition rate among aid workers would be lower if organizations spent more time educating their team members prior to departure.

For those folks following the conflict in Georgia the sites and sounds that come to us through the various forms of media (this website included) are a distilled version of events and can take a heavy toll if not taken in moderation.  While aid workers on the ground do not have the luxury of sitting at home they do have the advantage of seeing the human side of conflict and, more importantly, they have the ability to make a difference.  The audience back home does not have this ability and a feeling of hopelessness mixed with graphic images can make for a toxic cocktail.

While the drop off in site views may be evidence of viewers adrenal glands finally maxing out it may also simply be evidence of a waning interest due to the deescalation of hostilities.  I would wager it is perhaps both.  Whatever the case I think it is essential that at some point we step back and take a look at the bigger picture, remove ourselves from the conflict and remind ourselves to play with our kids.  By checking out now you will be better able to process the information next time around.

[UPDATE: For an interesting read on how stress effects the body click here.]

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