Why First Responders Use Substances to Cope with Job Stress and Secondary Trauma

Trauma occurs in people’s lives early on from neglect, abuse, or events that occur in their lives. From early childhood on through adulthood, there is the possibility of experiencing trauma, as well.

First responders use substances to cope with the trauma they experienced early on, but also may use them as a way to deal with situations they encounter at work. Feeling too much at work is considered a negative thing, even though they need to appear empathetic and sympathetic to people they help.

They need to keep a level head, be logical, and move fast. Time is of the essence when working to save people’s lives, in many cases, in an instant.

Moment by moment choices that get made can literally save a person’s life. To cope with stress and trauma, first responders are often struggling with mental health and addiction issues without their loved ones realizing the extent. 

Traumatic Buildup

Dealing with trauma can escalate in a person’s life as what they witness or experience can manifest itself in different ways. It is not uncommon for first responders to reach for substances to numb out or explore using drugs to relax after a hard day on the job.

Unhealthy behaviors can come from the trauma they don’t recognize. This means lying, stealing, overspending, overeating, gambling, or feeling disconnected from family and friends.

When these behaviors occur, a person may not be doing well and needs to find hope and healing after the challenges they face at work.

Trauma Hurts

When first responders experience trauma, they may be afraid to tell someone. The signs might be there, but it can be hard to speak about it.

It can be hard to admit they are having a hard time coping. First responders can perform well, but only if they are focused on their jobs and not on past traumatic experiences. Education and understanding can be the keys to healing from addiction.

When Talking Hurts

Loved ones may not be receptive to hearing what a person experiences on the job. Maybe it is too hard to talk about or it is confidential.

In this case, seeing a therapist may be a good place to start and feel heard. It is their job to listen with a neutral stance that focuses on healing the person.

Many times, a person is worried about what they are going to talk to them about, because they don’t want to spill the beans on colleagues or difficult work experiences, and definitely not substance use disorder. Talking does not have to hurt.

It has the power to heal. The stigma that surrounds getting help should not keep someone from telling another human their story. It can be helpful in getting the tools to cope more effectively and open the door to treatment options. 


The ability to recognize the fight or flight condition and calm the mind down is very important. Trauma can keep people from not realizing risky and dangerous situations.

To bring the body back to being relaxed, it helps to stay present and focused. It helps to notice how things feel and use the tools of self-regulation.

Focus on breathing in and out, rhythmically, and with some sense of quiet calm. Try to bring the breath back into the body, especially when anxiety gets high.

Learning to breathe is an important tool for people who struggle with PTSD symptoms or trauma. Job stress can lead to lots of emotionally difficult situations. Find hope in knowing the body can self soothe and regulate where needed. 

Find Moments of Joy

Even when first responders are struggling at work, they can use the tools they have to find little moments of joy. This might be stopping to hear birds sing on break, or hearing a friend share stories that make them laugh.

It can mean stopping for a moment to understand what it feels like to walk in another person’s shoes. Those moments of joy can mean everything to a person with trauma in their history.

It can help keep them going for those days when it feels like too much. Until they get help, they may not be able to see the joy in things every single day but they can find hope for better days ahead.

Laugh it Off

The prescription for laughter comes because it can decrease stress hormones and trigger the release of endorphins. When these are released, it enhances a sense of well-being and may relieve pain.

First responders are mostly responding with their logical minds, so it is healthy to laugh and get out of the head to feel something in the body physically once in a while. 

Seek Treatment

Trauma is no laughing matter. It is serious and can take a person’s life down very narrow pathways, including addiction, and can lead to serious consequences for their health.

Relationships can suffer and even work may suffer, too. The key is to find help from the right place. Treatment focused on first responders, with people who understand their journey, is helpful.

It is important to navigate the journey and stay focused on healing. This might look different for each person, but in stepping out in faith to ask for help, a person is putting themselves first and taking care of their needs so they can better care for others. That is the most important thing of all. 


Forge is a place to come and recover your life from addiction. We help you reimagine what is possible and create the life you’ve been dreaming of.

Call us today: 1-888-224-7312