Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder In First Responders: What To Know And Ways to Cope

Every day first responders put themselves at the forefront of disaster, whether they’re firefighters, police officers, or Emergency Medical Services personnel.  They all deal with incredible amounts of stress and trauma on the job, which can take a toll over time on their mental and physical health.  The prolonged exposure to stress for first responders can result in post-traumatic stress disorder, something that can overwhelm many first responders if not recognized and treated.

What Is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?

Post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, is a mental health condition that’s triggered by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.  There are three types of PTSD, including:

Re-experiencing: This type of PTSD is characterized by overwhelming fears, flashbacks of trauma events including rapid breathing and sweating, nightmares about the event, and other symptoms related to the initial trauma.

Hyperarousal: This involves constantly feeling on edge, being quick to anger or easily startled, and insomnia. 

Avoidance: This is characterized by feelings of guilt and depression, amnesia surrounding traumatic events, loss of interest in former hobbies, and avoidance of places that trigger traumatic memories.

Post-traumatic stress disorder, when untreated, can develop into further health issues such as alcoholism or substance abuse. There are, however, treatments available and strategies that can be used to reduce the stress of being a first responder and maintain one’s health on the job.

How To Reduce The Stress

The first and one of the most important ways to reduce the stress of being a first responder is in the hands of those in leadership. Specialized training, an elevated level of professional mastery, and an assurance in personal and team capabilities protect the first responder from the trauma of the job and reduce stress.  Social support in the form of good relationships with leaders and coworkers can act as a protection against the stress of PTSD.

Recognizing one’s own limitations is another important factor in stress reduction.  Taking enough time off of work, being aware of signs of burnout and compassion fatigue, and being aware of personal vulnerability are all important ways of ensuring one does not become overwhelmed by the stresses of the job. 

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle and routine is one of the biggest ways to increase resiliency and the ability to recover from stress.  It’s important to make a plan prior to the disaster for self-care.  This involves taking breaks during the disaster response, adequate levels of sleep, a nutritious diet, and exercise.

Lastly, the most difficult but important way to reduce the stress associated with being a first responder is to recognize it and seek outside help. Admitting one’s own vulnerabilities can seem dangerous in a job where one has to be on it at all times, but recognizing when one needs help is a sign of strength, not weakness.  Treatment options exist, and qualified therapists will be able to help first responders continue to perform without the debilitation of PTSD.