Are You a First Responder? Here's How To Save Yourself First

Anyone who has been on an airplane knows that in an emergency situation, you should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting anyone else. But for first responders like Police Officers, Firefighters, and EMS personnel, the daily stress of exposure to traumatic situations at work can cause ongoing psychological damage and stress that puts first responders at risk. According to a study commissioned by the Ruderman Foundation, first responders are more likely to die from suicide than from the risks they face in the line of duty[1]. In addition to the risk, stress causes individual responders, the collective and cumulative impact of these stressors can reduce the efficiency of the department as a whole. For us to have healthy and functional emergency response services, it’s especially important for first responders to learn to save themselves first.

You Are Not Alone

One of the most important things to keep in mind as a first responder is that you are not alone. You have a high-stress job, and seeing the worst of humanity and the most violent aspects of mother nature would eventually take a toll on anyone. First Responders are the closest thing we have to superheroes, and even Superman needed his fortress of solitude. Feeling the need to get away from friends and relatives who can’t understand what you’re going through is completely normal, but it can lead to isolation and strain in your personal relationships. Instead of trying to go it alone, be brave and admit to yourself and others that your work is tough and you need a helping hand. The first step to solving a problem is admitting that one exists!

Healthy Coping Habits

It’s understandable that the daily stress of dealing with disasters, violence, and trauma builds up pressure that needs some form of release. Ongoing exposure to traumatic situations can trigger depressive episodes, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder[2] and even in some cases, physical illnesses[3]. Sadly, many first responders end up turning to drugs and alcohol to manage the emotions that come along with this type of work. Substance use is not a healthy coping mechanism, even if it does temporarily numb the pain. At some point, that pain starts to resurface and the habit of numbing out can alienate you from your friends and loved ones, causing you to feel numb and out of place all of the time.

Instead of looking for healing in the bottom of the bottle, why not explore some healthier coping mechanisms, like Equine or Wolf therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or Yoga? Many departments offer some form of free or low-cost counseling for first responders, but even if yours does not, you have other options. For example, First Responders First is a retreat and recovery center specifically designed to help first responders cope with the effects of ongoing trauma exposure, and is available “at little or no cost to most First Responders.”

Recovery is Possible

If you have been dealing with work-related trauma for a long time, it can be easy to feel like this is ‘just the way you are’ and that recovery is impossible for you. That is categorically untrue. The antidote to trauma is resilience, and resilience is something anyone can develop. Individual resilience is a key part of recovery, and it comes from a series of positive coping mechanisms, embracing instead of distancing oneself from your own emotional state, and often seeking out professional help to navigate the difficult emotional residue left behind by your job[6]. Remember, a lot is riding on your health. Stressed out first responders make poor decisions, putting yourself and others at unnecessary risk. In a way, the more resilient you become, the better you will be at your job, and the more you will enjoy it. When it comes to recovering from work-related stress, first responders would do well to keep in mind the helpful advice of flight attendants everywhere: Secure your own mask first. If you or someone you know is a first responder who is struggling, then reach out to us. At First Responders First, we’re here to help you get on the road to recovery.