Psychological stress is a general term that refers to experiences that threaten our ability to cope. We know, of course, that first responders are exposed to experiences on a daily basis that do just that, and often times are even affected by major critical incidents that tend to overwhelm their normal coping mechanisms. As this article points out, there are a number of different words we use to describe what the stresses of those experiences have done to us, and how our emotions and behaviors have been affected by them.
There are two important points that must be made here. First, any of the reactions as described here in the context of being a first responder are absolutely normal. Second, when we realize that all of these conditions are connected in one way or another to our natural stress response system, the path to finding solutions to help us manage these reactions becomes much clearer.
Here are some of the more common ways in which our psychological stresses show up:
- Fear or apprehension: These words described the stress experienced by a person who is facing a situation that is dangerous or potentially dangerous. No real explanation is needed here as far as first responders are concerned, because that describes the expectation of essentially every shift that is worked. Like a soldier going into battle, the first responders in our communities anticipate the possibility of a dangerous situation occuring every time they are called upon.
- Anxiety: Many of the disorders that plague first responders are recognizable as anxiety disorders, including Acute Stress Disorder and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Anxiety causes sufferes to have unrealistic fears about the future, or disturbing memories from their past. Many first responders especially have a difficult time filing away their memories of traumatic experiences so that they aren’t constantly troubled by them.
- Depression: This describes the stress experienced by someone who has suffered a significant loss such as the death of a loved or the dissolution of a relationship, someone who is suffering from a debilitating illness or injury, or someone who generally seems to feel helpless and who has lost hope in the future. First responders who have been injured on the job, for example, may be more at risk for depression to set in.
- Frustration: Sometimes stress is experienced when there is an obstacle or obstacles that prevent the achievement of a goal. In emergency services professions, the frustration that is described here is the result of having to deal with the bureaucracy surrounding those professions, including the various levels of government, the citizenry, or the administration of the agency itself.
- Conflict: This is the type of stress that comes from having to choose between alternatives. Sometimes those alternatives might be somewhat equally attractive, such as deciding whether to accept a position with a local agency or to take an offer with a department out of state. Often the alternate choices we are faced with create more serious dilemmas, such as having a spouse demand that we choose life with her/him over the career as a first responder.
- Guilt: As one matures in his or her career as a first responder, the likelihood of developing feelings of guilt increases, resulting in thoughts or behaviors that are inconsistent with one’s self-image. Whether it is guilt over the perceived failure on a particularly difficult call, or the guilt felt by those surviving after burying a colleague lost in the line of duty, every first responder will deal with this stressful emotion at some point.
Whether or not you need professional help to overcome any of the manifestations of psychological stress discussed here, there is little doubt that following some relatively simple stress management strategies will help you feel at least somewhat better. If you’d like to have a confidential conversation with someone about any of the effects of job-related stress that are bothering you, please reach out to us at m.me/callforbackup.org/ and one of our peer support specialists will be happy to chat with you.