MODULE ONE | Understanding and Coping with Traumatic Stress

PART FIVE | Risk and protective factors

In addition to learning to recognize our own specific “early warning signals” so that we can identify when we’re experiencing unhealthy levels of stress, it’s helpful to know what risk and protective factors we carry with us. Risk factors increase our vulnerability to experiencing traumatic stress reactions. Protective factors decrease our vulnerability by increasing our personal hardiness and resilience and enabling us to deal with increased levels of stress with less distress.

Risk factors

Research has identified several factors that impact the likelihood of experiencing traumatic stress reactions when exposed to sufficient stressors. These are:

  • The nature and intensity of traumatic events experienced in the past: There is no escaping our own personal histories completely when it comes to stressful and traumatic events. While a desire to help others in need can spring from our greatest personal wounds, it is important to recognize that confronting the trauma of others can trigger our own memories of hurt and betrayal. This is important to keep in mind, since recent research suggests that at least a third of humanitarian workers have undergone traumatic events prior to any experiences they may encounter in the field.
  • The nature and intensity of the traumatic or stressful event that triggers the current reaction: The type of stressful event influences the likelihood of experiencing stress and trauma reactions. Experiencing or witnessing a man-made disaster involving human cruelty (such as an armed attack) is usually more stressful than experiencing or witnessing natural disasters.
  • The number of stressors experienced: Those who are experiencing multiple significant life events and changes (such as the death of a parent or moving internationally) tend to be more vulnerable.
  • The length of exposure to stressful situations: As exposure lengthens, risk increases.
  • Organizational factors: Preliminary research suggests that humanitarian workers identify organizational factors such as team relationships, leadership, clarity of mission objectives, and agency structure, as their primary cause of chronic stress
  • History of previous psychiatric illness: Those with a prior history of psychiatric illness, especially those who have experienced acute stress disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder, tend to be more vulnerable.
  • Lack of social support: Social support is very important in protecting humans from the effects of stress and trauma. Recent research suggests that, compared to those with medium to high levels of social support, those with compromised social support are 4 times more likely to experience traumatization and 2.5 times more likely to experience some form of physical illness. Individuals without partners are also at greater risk.
  • Pronounced introversion: People who are introverted are typically more vulnerable.
  • Negativity and pessimism: Habitually negative, pessimistic individuals are more vulnerable to stress-related dysfunction. In addition, the more negative their appraisal of the meaningfulness of their humanitarian mission or work assignment, the more vulnerable they are.

Protective factors

In contrast, the following factors tend to help people thrive in the face of adversity. They buffer individuals against the effects of stressful experiences, and help them cope with the transitions demanded by significant life events:

  • Social support: Well-developed interpersonal skills, extraversion, and the ability to secure and maintain a good social network are vital to emotional health and stability. Recent research suggests that strong relationships with others may be even more important than personal coping knowledge and skills, and the best protection in stressful environments.
  • Optimism and healthy self-esteem: An optimistic outlook, regular experiences of positive emotions, a healthy self-esteem, and faith in self are traits that foster hardiness and resilience.
  • Spirituality: Spirituality incorporates an individual’s vision of a “moral order” and search for meaning and purpose, religious beliefs, and hope for the future. In general, spirituality is a very effective protective factor. The exceptions appear to be when an individual’s spirituality is naïve (untested and/or not thoughtfully constructed), or when individuals are particularly rigid in their spiritual beliefs. In these instances, individuals who are faced with the challenges of humanitarian work appear to be more vulnerable to the shattering of rigid worldviews, loss of sense of meaning and purpose, negative self-images, and other attendant psychological difficulties.
  • Adaptability: A certain degree of flexibility in belief structure, emotional experience and worldview is a protective factor.
  • Tendency to find meaning: A natural tendency to find meaning and purpose in events, especially stressful events that challenge an individual, is another protective factor.
  • Curiosity and openness to experience: Curiosity and openness to new experiences are related to adaptability, hardiness and resilience.
  • Aptitude: Resourcefulness, intellectual mastery and general capability are protective factors.


  • The nature and intensity of any traumatic events experienced in the past
  • The nature and intensity of the traumatic or stressful events that trigger the current reactions
  • The number of stressors experienced
  • The length of exposure to stressful situations
  • Organizational factors
  • History of previous psychiatric illness
  • Lack of social support
  • Pronounced introversion
  • Negativity and pessimism


  • Social support
  • Optimism and healthy self-esteem
  • Spirituality
  • Adaptability
  • Tendency to find meaning
  • Curiosity and openness to experience
  • Aptitude

For personal reflection…

  • Which of these risk and protective factors can you recognize in your own life history, current situation, and personality?
  • How do you see these factors interacting with the stress you experience?
© Headington Institute 2007