Everyday Heroes and Mental Health: Going the Distance to Heal Traumatic Stress in First Responders
By Julie Gowthorpe, Ph.D.

Image result for trauma recoveryWith the recent attack in Las Vegas and fires in California, we are reminded of the brave men and women who, as part of their jobs, experience trauma. When people are waiting for help to arrive, it is often forgotten that police, soldiers, paramedics, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel are human. While they may appear invincible in times of crisis, they do not have some immunity to sadness, grief or the effects of trauma. The belief that such professionals can walk away unscathed by pain, death, and loss is false. 

Traumatic stress is a normal response to an abnormal situation. For first responders and emergency professionals responding to crisis, the likelihood that they will experience the effect of cumulative trauma (being exposed to several events) is expected. They may experience symptoms which include heightened anxiety, nightmares, flashbacks, hypervigilance, anger and low tolerance for everyday experiences. When anxiety escalates, problematic symptoms heighten and tolerance decreases. Without close attention, highly competent first responders can find themselves confronting issues associated with physical health, mental health, and family breakdown.

Here are some tips for people experiencing or living with someone who is suffering the effects of trauma:

  1. Access support. If you or your loved one has experienced or witnessed a traumatic event(s), seek support. Not everyone who experiences trauma develops PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder). Talking about your experience with a skilled professional can assist in processing the event(s) in a manner that reduces the likelihood of developing symptoms. With support, many people can learn how to process the event in a manner that they can accept. 
  2. Let others support you. Worry about the stigma of needing mental health support can prevent people from reaching out. Realize that when your brain responds to an experience, it is not your fault if symptoms arise. With increased research and media attention, the stigma is being reduced. 
  3. Accept that bad things happen to good people. A mindful approach can be incredibly helpful when dealing with trauma. Again, a professional skilled in teaching mindfulness strategies can assist you in calming your body and your your mind. By learning to accept things outside of your control, you will be better able to invest in things that are meaningful and in the now.
  4. Pay attention to avoidant strategies. Traumatic stress symptoms are extremely uncomfortable. To alleviate symptoms, many people unconsciously engage in avoidant strategies. Some of these strategies include: alcohol abuse, drug abuse, gambling, excessive spending, and sexual affairs. If you or your loved one has experienced trauma and are showing these behaviours, seek help immediately. These behaviours will not resolve the symptoms and will make your current situation worse.
  5. Traumatic stress is not a sign of weakness. Some people experiencing the effects of trauma may mistakenly see it as a weakness. This is not the case.  People who experience trauma are dedicated, empathetic, and competent professionals. 

The daily grind of responding to emergencies can take a toll on the most experienced professional. For those of you in first responder professions, take a proactive approach to self-care. While the rest of us cannot prevent exposure to trauma, we can offer a compassionate, non-judgmental response to those who keep us safe.