How do first responders deal with trauma?

Mental Health and Wellness
Firefighter giving another firefighter supportive handshake

First responders have a physically and emotionally demanding job. Every day presents a new type of challenging, dangerous, and potentially distressing situation.

Chronic exposure to traumatic events, coupled with the intense stress of the job, can cause mental and emotional damage over time. Left untreated, that trauma can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in first responders as well as issues with sleep, relationships, and physical health.

There are several effective treatment options available for first responders, including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), psychotherapy, and stress management therapy. Together, these treatments can help first responders deal with trauma and build resilience.

Many first responders might not get the help they need due to perceived stigma surrounding mental health. To combat this, it's crucial to break down the stigma and help people understand that trauma is a normal human response to a distressing, abnormal situation.

The importance of trauma treatment for first responders

Due to the non-stop, high-stress nature of the job, many first responders dealing with trauma and stress don't have the opportunity to stop and process what they've been through.

Over time, chronic exposure to these types of high-stress situations can lead to post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders (PTSD) or symptoms of PTSD. Unaddressed, these painful experiences can lead to sleep disturbances, painful flashbacks, nightmares, emotional numbness, and addiction. "That continued exposure really puts them at higher risk of trauma," says Alyson Kessler, a behavioral health therapist at Mirmont Treatment Center, part of Main Line Health.

Trauma is a normal human response to an overwhelming and abnormal situation, says Kessler. Traumatic situations activate our fight or flight response, in which the stress hormone cortisol is released. This constant release of cortisol can increase your risk of high blood sugar, weight gain, a weakened immune system, and chronic pain. This can increase feelings of anxiety and depression and cause mood swings and severe emotional reactions to minor things.

Unprocessed trauma can impact interpersonal relationships with others, too. "First responders can often become avoidant of certain conversations," Kessler says. Some first responders may start isolating themselves so they don't have to talk about the situations they encounter. As a result, the chaos and dysfunction they routinely observe can become normalized.

Treating trauma and PTSD in first responders

Many first responders may not seek help due to fear of the stigma tied to mental health and the concern of being discriminated against or judged. "There really is a stigma that creates the barrier for self-care and the willingness to seek care," says Kessler.

In addition, some first responders may feel guilty for practicing self-care or taking care of themselves. But even — and especially — our helpers need help.

it's crucial to help first responders understand that they are not alone, and what they are experiencing is normal. Trauma treatment can include cognitive behavioral therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) psychotherapy, meditation, stress management, and psychodrama work.

These treatment methods for dealing with trauma can help first responders identify their thoughts, emotions and behaviors and change certain responses they may have in various situations. Treatment can also help first responders relax, reprocess traumatic events, and reduce the emotional distress they might feel.

A strong support system is also invaluable. An accountability partner—whether it's a fellow first responder or a close friend or family member at home—can encourage them to open up about what they're seeing and how they're feeling. First responders need someone to go to and a way to manage stress before, during, and after the events occur, says Kessler.

Can first responders build resilience?

Resilience, or the ability to persevere and overcome adversity, can be built throughout a lifetime. Being resilient does not mean that a person eliminates challenges or distress from their life. Rather, it means that they're able to adapt in the face of trauma, tragedy, and threats. First responders already have an impressive amount of strength and resilience within, but that inner strength can always be built upon.

Kessler says it's crucial for first responders to develop protective factors that promote resilience like exercise, a healthy diet, a healthy sleep schedule, and engaging with peers, partners, friends, and families. Attending support groups and therapy can also help people understand and process trauma.

Strong communication and problem-solving skills can also help first responders safely and healthily navigate and process the difficult situations they encounter daily. If you are struggling, the first step is asking for help. There are people ready and willing to step in and help you recognize that you're not alone and that feeling the effects of trauma is not a weakness.

Mental and emotional well-being are integral to a healthy life. When people suffer with mental illness or drug and alcohol abuse, it significantly impacts all aspects of their lives and their loved ones.

Main Line Health offers behavioral health services, from group therapy and individual therapy to 12-step meetings for drug and alcohol addiction. Main Line Health's Mirmont Treatment Center offers specific services for first responders. It all begins with a phone call.

Please call 1.888.CARE.898 (227.3898) to schedule a confidential appointment.

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