Firefighters and medics are not invincible. They feel fear and are helpless at times. They suffer heartache, suffer with their victims, and bleed just like everybody else. Wellness practices for the spirit, or spiritual wellness, is a concept fairly new to first responders, but learning how to nurture, protect, and sustain one’s spirit is critical for survival.
Following are several emotional-survival and wellness principles that firefighters and medics can develop. All of them can help improve coping ability, mitigate stress, prepare a first responder to more effectively process trauma, and enhance overall wellness.
1 Serve with Compassion
Search for ways to express and demonstrate service with compassion. The virtue of service is fundamental in making a first responder feel alive and useful, while finding purpose in their work. The most meaningful things in life cannot be seen or touched, but are felt with the heart. A first responder with a healthy spirit is driven by the heart to solve problems, help those in need, and make the world, home, community, and work better places to be. It is important to their spirit to learn to focus on what their spouse, children, community, work colleagues, and others need from them rather than what they want from others.
2 Remain Involved with Outside Interests
First responders need to remain involved in activities they found fun and interesting before becoming a first responder. Most firefighters spend significantly more time watching television and using a computer than they did starting their career. Such activities tend to keep them isolated and away from more productive, life-sustaining activities that serve to breathe life into their spirit.
3 Establish a Support System
Develop a trusted support system and discuss how they can best support and most effectively help you. Your physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being, as well as the quality of your life, all depend on their level of preparedness and the development of an effective support system that is non-judgmental, caring, and supportive.
4 Get an Annual Emotional-Survival-and-Wellness Checkup:
As a form of prevention and wellness maintenance, first responders should consult with a psychologist specializing in treating emergency first responders and trauma to determine if they are being adversely affected by past trauma and to gain insight into how to deal with trauma and stress more effectively.
The idea behind an annual checkup like this is not that “something is wrong.” Something may or may not be affecting you, but the emphasis is on getting a wellness check and discussing the previous year—both professionally and personally, as a preventative and wellness-maintenance measure. This is similar as going to a physician each year for a physical checkup.
5 Questions to Discover Purpose in Work and Relationships. First responders should determine the following
- What gives meaning and purpose to their professional and personal lives?
- What provides hope, comfort, and happiness?
- What are their ethics and character values and how can they be improved?
- How do they maintain perspective and keep in touch with the most important people in their life?
- In what ways do they work to improve the quality of their relationships?
- In what ways do they harm those relationships?
- In what ways do they show the most meaningful people in their life how much they are valued?
- In what ways do they nurture their spirit?
- Who and what are they responsible for at work and at home, and how consistently do they fulfill that obligation? How specifically can be done to improve?
6 Get More Consistent, Good Sleep
Lack of good sleep will worsen a first responder’s mood, decrease their alertness, interfere with their decision-making ability, impair their task performance, cause serious emotional and physical problems, and reduce their ability to concentrate and generally think. Eighteen hours of sustained wakefulness, is equivalent to a .08 percent blood alcohol level.
7 Exercise as a Way of Life
Maintaining a vigorous and consistent exercise activity level is essential, because it will significantly reduce your stress levels, reduce your chances of getting injured, and enhance your coping abilities. Consistent exercise will reduce your chances of getting a heart attack or acquiring type 2 diabetes by 58 percent. It will also significantly reduce tension while you’re off duty and enable you to get more consistent sleep.
8 Strengthen Character
The quality of any person’s character is related to their integrity, dependability, trustworthiness, dedication, compassion, hard work, and selflessness. A first responder’s character can always be improved upon. Focusing on strengthening your character will help to improve over-all wellness, peace, and coping ability while providing more meaning to life and work.
Focus only on what you can control, which ultimately is only your reaction to things, your compassion, your integrity, and your professionalism.
10 Practice Letting Go
First responders need to learn to be aware of how much they identify with negative thoughts and emotions, as well as being affected by past trauma, while learning to let such thoughts and emotions go. Work to replace negatives with more positive thoughts and feelings. Often remembering to say something like “That’s not helpful” can help to release or let go of adverse thoughts and negative emotions.
11 You Are Not Your Job
Working as a first responder is merely a role; it is not who you are. You have many other roles, such as a parent, spouse, friend, coach, etc. When you identify so much with the job to the exclusion of everything else, anything that affects the job (management decisions, etc.) tends to have a devastating effect on you because everything is taken so personally.
12 We All Need Help at Times
If you ever think you may need help or are told you may need help—you are already significantly past the time of needing that help. Peer support, Department chaplains or psychologists are there to offer essential help that we all need from time to time to survive this profession.
Support from Home is Essential
The most-often overlooked pillar of support for emergency first responders is the most essential – support from home. By learning how to nurture their first responder spouses, they can become hidden partners in achieving overall wellness and emotional survival.
Firefighters and medics need to create an atmosphere at home where their spouses feel comfortable to approach them to let them know that they have noticed something may be bothering you. Often we are the last to know when the job has been adversely affecting us. It is imperative for spouses to provide us with that feedback and insight that we may not be acting like ourselves. Then, hopefully we can do something about it before we turn into someone our loved one no longer recognizes.
First responders need to remember how difficult it is to be married to us, with us never being home, dealing with how the job affects us and the family, and everything else with being married to a first responder. Our spouses and children can become victims of our profession, just like we can. PTSD significantly affects all the members of the family and can be very traumatic for them as well. First responders should be asking their spouses what they need from us, what we can do to be partners in their emotional survival and wellness; so that both can work as partners to insure you, your marriage, and family, both your health and wellness, survive the profession.
A career as a first responder involves sacrifice, a giving of oneself, and a selfless devotion to protect and give life to others. Inherent in this noble profession is a continual assault upon your spirit. Reacting to tragedies, being immersed in heartache, while trying not to suffer with their victims makes it a daily struggle to emotionally survive.
It is not inevitable that a first responder will suffer and become a victim of their profession. The consistent practice of emotional and spiritual wellness principles can enable first responders not only to emotionally survive but to thrive throughout their career. It is imperative for first responders to work to bulletproof their spirit because the protection of their community, the quality of their personal and professional life, the happiness of their family, and the wellness of their spirit all depend upon it.
Readers interested in discussing this topic further, or having Captain Willis present an emotional survival class to your station, can reach Captain Willis at firstresponderwellness.com or [email protected] Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responders Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart” can be obtained at: www.firstresponderwellness.com.
For more information, go to www.firstresponderwellness.com