What was the worst call you have ever been on? How many different ways did that call and so many others adversely affect your health and wellness, your relationships at home, how you perceive your job and the community, and the quality of your life? Could you have been better prepared before and after, to more constructively process the acute stress and trauma of a professional firefighter?
Consistently being immersed in death, tragedies, danger, heartache, and suffering can often scar the spirit of any first responder – particularly firefighters and EMT personnel. Tragically, first responders are more likely to kill themselves than die in the line of duty. There are more than twice as many problem drinkers within the first responder professions than the general public. An estimated 15-18% suffer from PTSD, with an estimated 20-25% who will suffer at least one life-altering addiction during their career. It is essential for fire personnel to incorporate proactive emotional survival and wellness practices that nurture, protect, and heal their spirit—to bulletproof their spirit to prevent them from becoming victims of their profession.
The inherent adverse effects of a career as a firefighter or medic are poisonous and cumulative. Like a cancer, dedicated yet unsuspecting first responders have the potential to slowly succumb to the toxic, debilitating effects of acute stress and trauma with little training on how to effectively process the internal damage. The job has an inherent ability to turn us into someone our loved ones no longer recognize. Following is emotional survival strategies based upon the award-winning book, “Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responders Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart,” (firstresponderwellness.com).
The Warning Signs
Emotional survival means having the ability to process stress, overcome trauma, while serving with compassion without the job being crippling either mentally, emotionally, or physically. If you are doing nothing proactively to develop and promote emotional survival, then you are allowing the job to victimize you.
Our spirit is the foundation for our physical, mental, emotional wellness and the quality of our life. Our spirit consists of everything within that makes us resilient, able to cope with trauma; it is our motivation to compassionately serve and help others; our sense of aliveness; and it is what makes us human. And it is our spirit that suffers most from a career as a first responder. The first objective is to understand the several warning signs that a firefighter’s spirit has been injured and not processing stress effectively.
Over time there is a natural tendency to become increasingly isolated. This involves withdrawing—preferring the company of work colleagues or being alone over associating with other friends, family, and their related activities. One develops the tendency to disengage, not wanting to make decisions away from work, and preferring not to be involved with others, even spouses and children. Eventually, you can become distant and reclusive.
When affected, you’ll tend to develop a shorter-than-usual fuse, fly off the handle for seemingly insignificant reasons, respond to questions in one-word sentences, usually say you are “fine” just to stop any further conversation, and keep everyone near you walking on eggshells for fear of how you may react. You become increasingly more on edge, restless, and agitated.
- Difficulty Sleeping
Having difficulty consistently getting a good night’s sleep—either because of sleep interruptions several times each night or because of only being capable of sleeping for a few hours—is a significant sign that you are not effectively processing stress and are being adversely affected by the job.
When seriously affected, you begin to develop a pattern of taking out your stress and frustration on others, often those they care about most.
- Emotional Numbness/Feeling Dead Inside
Becoming emotionally numb or dead inside is inevitable, at least initially, and firefighters need to consistently work to prevent it from overwhelming them. The job will naturally tend to make you want to shut down emotionally as a way to no longer feel the sense of helplessness, frustration, stress, trauma, and emotional pain of the job. As you shut down emotionally, you tend to become disassociated with others, indifferent, and disengaged with life. However, this inevitably leads to seriously damaged relationships at home.
- Lack of Communication
As one increasingly withdraws, they will tend to make the serious mistake of keeping everything inside. This becomes serious because, as their communication skills diminish, they will refuse to talk about how work is affecting them. Feelings of depression, anxiety, helplessness, anger, fear, and other negative emotions will then tend to intensify.
- Cynicism, Distrust, and Loss of Work Satisfaction
If any of these warning signs are not addressed, you will likely become highly dissatisfied at work, extremely cynical, and distrustful of most everyone. This cynicism and negative outlook can send you into a downward spiral that eventually could affect every aspect of your quality of life.
Ignoring any of these warning signs eventually can lead to clinical depression. Left untreated, this may worsen and become potentially severe depression, resulting in substance abuse and addictions, broken families and lives, and a host of other debilitating problems, up to and including suicide.
- Drinking as a Perceived Need or Habit
Drinking or consuming other substances because of a perceived need or by habit is a major warning sign. Alcohol abuse is a serious problem among firefighters and medics. Drinking because of a need or habit tends to only intensify already serious problems and emotional issues, as well as problems at work.
The first step for a firefighter to bulletproof their spirit is to learn to become more self aware of not only how the job may be adversely affecting them, but what emotional survival methods may be effective to maintain their wellness. First responders should periodically seek opinions from their spouse and loved ones regarding whether they believe you have been changing in any way, how the job has been affecting you, and what specifically the first responder can do to improve their relationships.
Periodically ask yourself how you cope and manage career stress, and whether what you have been doing is healthy. It’s helpful to think about what positive things you can do that you enjoy, that will help to breathe life back into your spirit; how to become more engaged with family and life-enhancing activities, and how to promote your health and wellness more consistently.
PTSD – Unresolved Trauma
PTSD is not a weakness. It’s not about what’s wrong with you; it’s all about what happened to you. PTSD is really an injury to the brain’s ability to process a traumatic incident or acute stress. The brain’s natural processing ability becomes injured, or stuck, which can cause a person to repeatedly re-live the experience while experiencing crippling emotional reactions.
Such was the case with a La Mesa (San Diego County) Firefighter who for whatever reason, after one particular fatal drunk driving accident, began seeing blood everywhere in his mind’s eye – blood on his daughter’s face, his wife, in the shower, and on his hands. He also kept having repeated nightmares where the dead woman who he had recovered from the tangled debris, suddenly opened her eyes and said the firefighter had killed her. The more he tried not to see these images, the more often and more intensely he would see it.
A colleague told the firefighter about a PTSD therapy treatment called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing). The officer tried this therapy with the Fire Department’s psychologist and after only 2 sessions, never saw phantom blood again and never again had that nightmare. The therapy is specifically designed to heal the brain’s ability to process the trauma and place it in its proper perspective. Although you will always remember the incident, with treatments such as this you can remember it without being emotionally crippled during those memories – trained EMDR psychologists can be found at www.emdr.org.
In the second and final part of The Bulletproof Spirit, we will explore Wellness Practices and look at several emotional-survival and wellness principles that can be developed by emergency first responders.
For more information, go to www.firstresponderwellness.com