How Trauma Can Affect First Responders and What to Do

First responders, as the name suggests, are the first on the scene of a violent event, natural disaster, illness, injury and/or death, fire, auto accidents, the aftermath of terrorism, and other terrible events. They are repeatedly called out to these events.

Among their duties are physically and emotionally supporting the victims of these events. These intense experiences add up to behavioral, physical, and emotional disruptions in the responder’s life.

What Kind of Disruptions?

Trouble sleeping and nightmares are one of the top disruptions in a first responder’s life. The responder relives the event or events in dreams which makes him not want to sleep. Fatigue results. This affects his job due to the fact that he’s too tired to be sharp enough to perform his duties safely.

Anxiety and depression are suffered when responders live through a trauma. They isolate themselves from any person or situation that reminds them of the events. Their minds protect themselves from the results of the trauma by becoming paranoid the event will happen again or their memory suddenly fails them.

One of the ways responders deal with these disruptions is by using drugs or alcohol to mitigate these effects. These cause further and deeper problems in both the responder’s life and job.

When Help Should be Sought

A first responder should seek help the instant he recognizes there’s a problem. Repeatedly viewing terrible events might put off the onset of symptoms of stress disorder for several weeks. When the symptoms mentioned above begin to manifest, the responder should seek help.

Recovery often comes with talking out the horror witnessed and the effect it had on the mind. Family, friends, clergy, and psychologists are often sought out for help in dealing with trauma. However, when the responder feels isolated, he won’t feel like talking. Recovery can take longer.


One of the stumbling blocks to treatment of stress disorders is the stigma attached to any mental or emotional problems by lay persons in this country. It’s hard enough for responders to deal with the consequences of their jobs, but it’s doubled by the way people see them. This makes it harder for responders to seek help.

First, there’s the image of the responder to maintain. This is a tough guy, not one who caves under pressure. He doesn’t “talk” about his emotions. He would lose face if his peers knew he was experiencing emotional problems in his job.

Then there’s the very real fear of losing his job. While no one ever lost their job for seeking medical or even psychological help, they did lose it for the resulting effects of alcohol and/or drug use. The longer it continues, the better the chances of harming a coworker or a patient. Then he really will lose his job.

Family and friends might look at him differently, pity him, or distance themselves from him is a view looming large in a responder’s mind. This is one of the aspects of dealing with trauma that responders fear the most. If everyone he knows and loves leave him or treat him differently, then he just keeps it to himself.

Treatment Options

It would benefit the first responder to treat the results of the trauma at the same time. For instance, treating the alcohol and/or drug use is helpful, but what about the professional and emotional resulting from it? Without treating the cognitive aspects of the experiences, just treating the other aspects of it is detrimental to the responder.

Cognitive-behavioral therapy, meditation, mindfulness, and social or group therapy is a must in treating stress disorders. It redirects the responder’s mind in healthier directions, providing him with a necessary alternative to the intensity of the stress.

These medications are aimed at reducing or eliminating anxiety and depression, and you have a brain better able to face its demons and get rid of them. Treating the possible alcohol and/or drug problem at the same time gives the responder a better chance of complete recovery.

Where to Begin

For the first responder seeking recovery, the simplest way to begin is with a phone call. Your family physician, your pastor or minister, support groups, or a local mental health clinic can all direct you to specific organizations or doctors for care.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America or ADAA can direct you to support groups and medical professionals in your area.

The International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies or ISTSS can also direct you to medical professionals in your area.

First Responders First is the first facility in the country established for first responders suffering the effects of an intensely stressful job. It’s nestled in the Angeles National Forest and comprises 1,100 acres of beauty and peace for the responder’s recovery.