First responders (fire fighters, police, EMTs, ER staff and others) are recognized as being at significant risk for developing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Our risks are increased not only by the potential for experiencing traumatic events but are also due to the extremely stressful and draining nature of our work. Career and personal burnout are often the precursors to these conditions but seem to be viewed as inevitable.
We’re held to higher standards than the general public. What we do can make the six o’clock news and then get reviewed under a microscope. The pressure of such scrutiny is intense. We learn to hide not only our emotions, but also our scars.
Our work is honorable. If we are to honor ourselves, our colleagues, and our loved ones then we must accept these responsibilities:
Taking steps to avoid burnout and lowering our risk of becoming overwhelmed on and off the job.
Recognizing the red flags that indicate we’re struggling and responding to them adaptively.
Identifying and utilizing resources and supports that can be accessed without potentially compromising our professional standing.
In all my years of clinical practice I’ve consistently found that it’s not generally what we do that causes burn out. It’s what we don’t do. We don’t find healthy releases for the stress we accumulate. Establishing certain daily and weekly routines makes us less susceptible to becoming overwhelmed and developing unhealthy forms of coping.
Learn how to leave work at work. Develop a ritual for concluding your workday. Put things in order routinely and with the awareness that work is ending for the day and going home means not continuing to anticipate or plan for the next emergency.
Learn how to change hats at home. Literally put down the tools of your trade and initiate a routine for what you do when you get home.
Invest in organization. Do mundane things methodically in order to reduce stress in your overall life (plugging in your cell phone).
At least once per week, set aside time to talk with someone who not only gets you but also understands the work you do. We protect those we love from the details of what our work often demands of us.
Implement at least one activity that provides release both physically and emotionally.
Make time for the people who matter. Maintaining close ties through shared time and activities sustains you. After all, the biggest fear those of us on the front lines have is the fear of losing those whose love keeps us going.
Recognizing Red Flags
It’s always easier to explain away (rationalize) or ignore signs of cumulative stress. We’re acutely aware of what others need and not aware of ourselves beyond how we perform our duties.