Working as a first responder is emotionally and physically draining work. Sources of stress for first responders vary, but they all encounter specific situations with different people throughout their work. Stress management is critical, and this practice includes self-care. First responders can benefit from taking better care of themselves and protecting their mental and physical health.
Think ahead to what you can expect each day on the job. Imagine what possibilities and potential outcomes each day holds. Place yourself in these future scenarios and consider what your role might be in each situation. Prepare the heart, mind, and body, but don’t overthink it. Try to meditate, do yoga, and let go of stress before it even enters your body. Above all, try to keep expectations realistic.
Get a Plan
One of the hardest things to do is to plan for chaos. The days will never look the same, even if you want them to. It helps to have a plan to fall back on that will help you look ahead to what is coming. If you stay engaged with work and maintain a posture of acceptance for what happens, stress will melt away.
Know Secondary Trauma Response
During an actual response to a disaster, an act of violence, accident, or other issues, it helps to limit the time spent alone. Isolation can worsen depression and stress. Responders experience lots of pressure in a crisis, and this pressure can lead to burnout. Acute trauma and secondary traumatic stress are all about stress reactions and symptoms resulting from experiencing another person’s trauma. You didn’t experience it, but you feel the feelings of their experience.
Signs of Burnout
When dealing with compounded stress and secondary trauma, it is easy to get burned out. The symptoms of burnout include a decline in feeling joy, even outside of work. Sadness or apathy can take over. Frustration boils over quickly, and you begin to blame or lash out at others. Isolation and disconnection are possible, and poor self-care is likely. A loved one may stop showering or taking care of themselves, even for work. For people who burn out, they can turn to substances to cope with feelings of failure. Look for these signs to know if a loved one needs some additional support.
Trauma from the job can leach into people’s personal lives. Often, this begins with symptoms like excessive worrying. From there, it can escalate to symptoms that closely mirror those of PTSD. Such symptoms include startling easily, racing pulse, and intense nightmares.
Find Help from Friends
Team members are helpful. Buddy up and share the workload. Don’t go on calls if a break is needed. If two responders partner together, they can support each other and monitor each other’s stress levels. Get to know your coworkers, talk about hobbies, and identify strengths. Offer help with basic needs and monitor workloads. Encourage one another and take lots of breaks. Communicate needs and speak up to find what feels safe. Be vulnerable and mindful of what you need.
When you are dealing with self-care, it is essential to focus on what is helpful for you and you alone. Maybe it is art, therapy, rest, or being around animals. Learn to develop self-care techniques that work for your own personal situation. Limit longer shifts, and don’t jump into extra work if you feel burned out. Write things down in a journal and talk to people. Speak with supervisors and teammates about your experiences. Practice breathing and focusing on what you will do when confronted with negative emotions. If it is too much to handle, ask for help from therapists to cope. Seek treatment for addiction. Maintain safe boundaries and know it is okay to say no. Limit caffeine and alcohol.
Being on Call
Being on call is difficult for first responders because they never know when they will need to jump into a situation. Take breaks and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Working is not going to be helpful for you if you are burned out. Don’t feel you have to be on call all the time. Ask for some time off or take a vacation, especially if you’ve been pulling a lot of on-call shifts.
Don’t let yourself or a loved one get to a point where they are unable to work or function due to burnout or stress. Self-care is critical but especially hard for first responders. Offer your help by listening. It helps to feel heard and be vulnerable to someone who will listen. If that seems to help, but they need more support, offer additional resources, including mental health options through work or external treatment and professional services.