Tips for First Responders to Handle Stress and PTSD Symptoms on the Job

First responders have a tough job. They deal with stress and trauma on a daily basis as part of their work. They may already have dealt with stress in their life before becoming a first responder but sometimes PTSD happens after experiencing and witnessing as much trauma as they do. The culture of working as a first responder can be difficult to handle.

It may be easier to use substances to soothe the symptoms but it can cost them their jobs and even their lives. First responders can learn how to handle stress and PTSD better on the job without substances or negative coping mechanisms. Find out how to support a loved one in offering tips and tools to handle symptoms of PTSD and stress on the job.

Why Risk Is Higher

Coping with stressful situations day in and day out taxes the nervous system. It brings on stress the body cannot get rid of quickly enough and it builds up in the mind and body. With time, the brain begins to relive the experiences as a means of coping and dealing with what it witnesses. The body holds stress which can turn into anxiety, panic attacks, symptoms of PTSD, and hyper-awareness that cannot be shut off easily.

Untreated PTSD symptoms are a contributing factor to substance use disorder and mental health conditions like depression. Police officers, firefighters, veterans from the military, and others are susceptible to the risk of experiencing trauma-related PTSD. If left untreated, they may also experience devastating consequences to their health.

How PTSD Impacts First Responders

To understand how to help first responders, it helps to understand how the impact works. Stress-related mental health disorders create a huge challenge. There are several kinds of stress but first responders tend to develop either PTSD or acute stress disorder. Acute stress disorder is similar to PTSD but lasts for less time. Symptoms of PTSD can last for a longer period of time without help. Usually, within a month of the event or events, PTSD is more likely without resolution. Here are some of the ways it impacts first responders on the job:

  • Memories and flashbacks on the job of past events
  • Going out of their way to avoid work or situations that trigger the memory
  • Hypervigilance at work
  • Isolation
  • Focus and memory are off
  • Failure to perform self-care or putting themselves in harm’s way
  • Seeming pessimistic or hopeless

Resilience and Stress

For first responders, there are some ways to handle stress and symptoms of PTSD in a way that builds resilience. With substance use disorder, it is better to get treatment and find help right away. This includes a check for co-occurring substance use and mental health conditions. It helps to know everything a person is dealing with before addressing the issues head-on.

Integrated treatment programs designed for first responders can address the issues in a way that makes sense for them on the job and in their real lives. Sometimes, outpatient treatment programs (IOP) can work for them to help figure out how to navigate work/life balance with treatment.

Starting Treatment

Trained professionals in a team will work together to evaluate and assess the individual’s situation. This includes past and present behavior and situations that may have caused the PTSD. The team can work with the individual to document progress and make adjustments to the program as needed. Long-term care is needed so the person can manage their condition. People can receive treatment with therapy, medication, and other support they need.

Treatment Goals

The best thing a person can do is work with treatment providers on specific goals for helping them thrive in recovery. Mental health conditions like PTSD often pair with substance use disorder because that is the easiest way to deal with symptoms. Headaches, insomnia, and chronic pain from PTSD can be difficult to deal with so people often seek alcohol or drugs to cope. Alcohol is easier to hide as it can be done off-hours at home.

That being said, eventually, someone with addiction will exhibit signs and begin to function at a lower level than necessary for ultimate performance on the job and will need to seek treatment. Helping a loved one find treatment goals they can attain will provide structure for their recovery.

Family Support

One of the best treatment goals for individuals in recovery from PTSD is to continue working, meet goals, and have family support. They need to believe they are more than capable of handling their work but only at whatever capacity they can now. With family, friends, and loved ones, they need a strong social support network to catch them and keep them strong.

This will also help them in developing other interests and hobbies outside of work that keep them busy. It may be they need quiet space in nature and moments of solitude to cope with stress. Others may want to work out more to de-stress. Whatever it is, the family is crucial to the bigger picture of healing for everyone.

The best way to support a loved one is to encourage participation in therapy, sports, meditation, and activities that help keep them focused on staying centered. On the job, first responders can use breathwork, yoga techniques, tai chi, phone a friend for support, and other mechanisms to help stay calm when life feels overwhelming. More than that, they can seek treatment that supports these goals and further helps them navigate the journey one step at a time towards a better way of life.

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