Stress and Resilience in Security Contexts

Guest editors Professor Emma Barrett and Dr Nathan Smith provide an overview of the articles focusing on our special topic of stress and resilience.

Security work is inherently stressful, involving individuals making high-consequence decisions and taking actions in complex and potentially dangerous situations, sometimes while exposed to extreme environmental conditions. Identifying sources of stress and implementing effective coping strategies is crucial to operational success. Understanding how and when hostile actors (terrorists or cybercriminals, for example) experience stress and what contributes to their resilience can inform strategies to undermine their effectiveness.

What exactly do we mean by ‘stress’ and ‘resilience’?

When an entity (an individual, team, or organisation) experiences demands that surpass, or threaten to surpass, its ability to cope, it is under stress. The amount and type of stress experienced depends on both the nature of the stressors (the things that cause stress) and the entity’s coping resources. These in turn are influenced by factors such as skills, experience, and organisational structures, as well as by individuals’ physical and mental states at the time.

There is less consensus about what exactly ‘resilience’ is: different researchers argue it is a trait that can be developed, a state (something one displays in a particular context), a process, or the outcome of a process. Most agree, however, that resilience is related to adapting to and coping with adversity, and to recovering from challenging experiences.

In recent research we explored stress, resilience, and coping in counter-terrorism operations, identifying key stressors and examining how to support counter-terrorism personnel facing extreme operational demands.

Beyond the individual, stress can also exert its influence at the group, organisational, and societal level.

Understanding resilience (or lack thereof) at these different levels can contribute to accurate risk assessment and mitigation, effective operational decision making, and the development of appropriate evidence-based and informed policy interventions.

Given the cross-cutting nature of the topic, the articles in this issue focus on stress and resilience in broad terms and diverse contexts, providing new insights and highlighting conceptual developments that may be of particular interest to CSR readers.

The issue starts with a look at individual performance and health. Professor Marc Jones discusses the psychophysiological basis of stress, coping, and optimal function based on his research with high performing sport and military personnel. In a complementary article, Dr Mustafa Sarkar identifies the foundations of resilience and how social and organisational environments can be optimised to promote a more resilient response to stress.

Several contributions focus on topics directly relevant to operational settings. Professor Lorraine Hope provides an overview of how stress affects memory and its impact on recall in high pressure scenarios. Based on their research and their own deployment experiences, Jesper Corneliussen and Anders Kjaergaard discuss conflict resolution, and identify practical strategies for effectively managing social conflict in isolated and extreme teams. Lt Col Alan Ogle discusses readiness and response in remote combat operators, including how individuals can be supported after viewing traumatic imagery. Focusing on hostile actors, Dr Emma Grace presents findings of her research on stress and resilience in al-Qaeda terrorists.

Stress also exerts influence at a group and organisational level. The extent to which organised groups, teams and systems are resilient to stress will determine their effectiveness. Dr Aaron Roberts and Professor Neville Stanton talk about resilient information flow through complex sociotechnical systems based on research conducted in dynamic submarine control rooms.

Professor Nick Crossley focuses on the strengths and vulnerabilities of terrorist social networks, highlighting where and why they might be susceptible to disruption. Dr Jason Nurse provides a timely update on cyber-resilience and insider threat, exploring how organisations might respond to targeted cyber-attacks.

Defence, security, and law enforcement work does not occur in a vacuum, and is accompanied by complex human problems, such as the wellbeing of refugees escaping conflict zones, or how to deal with former combatants. Susie Ballentyne provides an overview of her work on stress, resilience, and mental health in Syrian refugees who have settled in Brazil and the UK. We also hear about the work of Dr Natalia Trujillo and Dr Juan Esteban Ugarriza who examine effective reintegration of armed combatants in the context of post-conflict reconciliation in Colombia.

Other topics related to stress and resilience, such as decision making and culture, personnel selection, and team cohesion, have received attention in previous issues of CSR and other CREST publications (see Read More.) However, this is such a rich and important area that deserves its own issue. We hope you enjoy the diversity of topics covered and that the articles stimulate new ideas for research and practice.


Emma Barrett is Professor of Psychology, Security and Trust at the University of Manchester, and the University’s strategic lead for Digital Trust and Security.

Nathan Smith is a Research Associate in Psychology, Security and Trust at the University of Manchester. His research focuses on the psychology of performance and health in extreme and high-risk settings.

This article appeared in issue 10 of CREST Security Review. You can read or download the original article here.

Read more

Emma Barrett and Nathan Smith. 2017. ‘Decision Making under Stress’. CREST Security Review, Autumn 2017. Available at: https://www.crestsecurityreview.com/article/decision-making-under-stress

Emma Barrett and Nathan Smith. 2019. Performance and Coping Under Stress in Security Settings. 18-033–01. Lancaster: Centre for Research and Evidence on Security Threats (CREST). Available at: https://crestresearch.ac.uk/resources/coping-under-stress-report/.

Nathan Smith and Emma Barrett. 2019. ‘Psychology, Extreme Environments, and Counter-Terrorism Operations’. Behavioral Sciences of Terrorism and Political Aggression 11 (1): 48–72. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1080/19434472.2018.1551916.


As part of CREST’s commitment to open access research this article is available under a Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0 licence. For more details on how you can use our content see here.