Studying stress in a simulated post-crisis scene

By Dale Johnson Posted: February 3, 2017 6:00 a.m.

Dr. Nick Carleton says simulation can help researchers study the impact of stress.
Dr. Nick Carleton says simulation can help researchers study the impact of stress. Photo: U of R Photography

An innovative research approach at the University of Regina may lead to better support for people exposed to high stress, such as nurses, first responders and other public safety personnel.

Nursing students recently took part in a simulated post-crisis scene. Nurses regularly use simulations as part of their training and education, because “describing how to perform tasks can be very different than showing and practicing the same tasks,” says one of the researchers, Dr. Nick Carleton, a psychology professor. One of his research areas is post traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

The simulation was held in a classroom that was made to appear like a chemistry laboratory where a fiery explosion had just occurred. The room was filled with smoke and had indications of damaged equipment, such as broken glass and burnt materials. Three actors portrayed injured people in substantial pain. The 14 participants were given limited specific direction by the researchers beyond asking them to "manage the situation."

“To our knowledge this is the first time anyone has conducted research over time using this level of simulated reality to understand the impact of stress. For example, previous research we did at the University of Regina started with full-length movies, which was already building on previous studies that had used dramatic clips, but this time participants could walk inside the movie. We also believe that this may have been the first time this level of detailed assessment – biological measures, psychological measures, and behavioural measures – have been used in such a simulation,” he says.

The faculty also included Samantha Horswill from arts; Patrick Neary from kinesiology; and Sherry Arvidson, Glenn Donnelly, Florence Luhanga, Jaime Mantesso and Joan Wagner from nursing. There was addition support from Sebastian Harenberg, Kish Lyster and Michelle McCarron from the Regina-Qu’Appelle Health Region. Carleton emphasizes the project would have been impossible without the interdisciplinary collaboration, calling it a “real team effort.”

“Simulation training provides an opportunity to practice skills in a safe environment that nonetheless closely replicates the real environment. The more familiar a person is with skills, and skill application within diverse and challenging environments, the more likely they will be successful,” Carleton adds.

“Extreme events can cause PTSD; however, most people exposed to a stressful event do not develop PTSD. Instead, there are many variables involved, which makes understanding the risk and resiliency factors associated with injuries like PTSD very important,” he says.
Carleton says simulation studies are helpful to study the impact of stress in a safe environment.

“We can change variables we test and therein better understand things associated with risk and resilience. Ultimately, we hope such simulation studies can help us to build evidence-based practices to protect against mental health injuries from real world events,” he says.