The Firefighter, Resilience and Post Traumatic Stress
The fire service is addressing behavioral health more frequently and firefighters are becoming very interested in the topic. The IAFF and the IAFC have a huge investment in spreading the message about firefighter behavioral wellness. The Wellness Fitness Initiative (WFI) is a published document that addresses the best practices in medicine, fitness and behavioral health. This and other publications tell us what we should do in seeking general health wellness as firefighters. At the same time, the topic of behavioral health and wellness is a broad topic with many smaller components. In this article, I will address Post Traumatic Stress, resilience and how these can help or create a significant behavioral health issue.
The most current research has suggested that firefighters are continuously exposed to potentially traumatic events (PTE's) on the job. The word "potentially" implies that all firefighters my not experience an event as traumatic. It has been said that "we cannot unsee what we have seen". I have treated many firefighters and EMS personnel that have many years on the job and suddenly realized that they have some form of psychological or emotional discomfort. This discomfort can come in the form of frequent thoughts or nightmares about an incident. This discomfort can also come in many other different forms. These include; being overwhelmed, drinking too much or experiencing relationship problems. Too often, firefighters ignore the effects of stress while continuing an overwhelming work load. This chronic stress combined with years of exposure to many calls (PTE's) can build up causing discomfort or many of the aforementioned symptoms.
Post traumatic stress and exposure are now being recognized as problems in the fire service. The next logical question is, what do we do about it? The most current research also helps us answer this question. Research data is now suggesting that practicing resilience can decrease our risk of developing PTSD as well as general stress. What is resiliency for the firefighter? How can we practice resilience?
I tell patients and clients to think of two components when trying to understand the concept of resiliency. These two components are self care and "unplugging" from the job. Self care can come in the form of many self interventions. Examples of self care are connecting with supportive people or loved ones, hobbies and exercise. Many firefighters are not well trained in self care. Specifically, we are conditioned to respond to many different problems in a "selfless" manner. This idea of selflessness is embedded in our culture and has assets and liabilities. The asset side includes putting our needs aside to help others. The liability side is that we tend to not get in the habit of taking care of ourselves. The term unplugging refers to disconnecting yourself from any aspect of our life that causes stress. This is good stress like doing our job and loving it as well as bad stress like feeling overwhelmed. The question that every firefighter and EMS worker should ask is, "how can I unplug and take care of myself?" What do the words self care and unplugging mean to me and my family?
In the future, you will hear a lot about resiliency, exposure and post traumatic stress. I would challenge everyone to think about self care and unplugging before you become overwhelmed. Please feel free to discuss this with members of your Peer Support Team. Our Peer Support Groups are happy to visit any fire station and discuss these topics. Please be safe.