Self-Care and Emotional Wellness in the Fire Service
Photo courtesy of Tim Olk
In fields where they face potentially traumatic events regularly, individuals are in jeopardy of developing chronic fatigue, complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and burnout if they do not provide themselves with regular, intentional self-care.
Firefighters experience high-intensity, traumatic, and personally impactful events on the job regularly. Without giving themselves time to process these events, recuperate physically and emotionally, and rebuild their wellness, they begin to backslide down the spectrum of fitness-wellness-sickness and experience negative ramifications, physically and emotionally. Those who do provide themselves with regular, intentional self-care are able to recover from traumatic events and experience wellness and resiliency, which echoes throughout all areas of their lives.
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Halton: Post Traumatic Growth
Firefighters experience paradigm-shifting experiences on the job regularly. When a person neglects to care for himself well enough to come back to his baseline, his emotional energy will work tirelessly until he gets back to homeostasis.1 Although a person may appear to be “fine,” he cannot run away from imbalances forever. These imbalances will begin to show up physically in blood pressure issues, changes in cholesterol and triglyceride levels, interrupted sleep, or other health-related problems. They present psychologically and emotionally in depression, anger, substance abuse, suicidal ideation, and traumatization/PTSD.
The first way that many firefighters experience the emotional ramifications of a highly stressful career is what I call “Rescuer’s Depression.” Approximately 17 percent of men will have a major depression at some point in their lives,2 and firefighters are more prone to this than the general population. Rather than feeling sadness, worthlessness, and a lack of desire to engage in formerly pleasurable activities,3 the person suffering from Rescuer’s Depression intentionally keeps it under wraps and lives a divided life.
Heroes and Humans. Firefighters often carry around a “hero mentality.” They love helping people. However, in a one-sided career like firefighting, individuals are accustomed to serving without getting anything in return. “Helping” careers like firefighting can fuel the idea that heroes don’t need anything, which simply isn’t true. Firefighters are heroes, yes, but they are also humans. Humans have feelings; they can be strong, brave, and powerful as well as hurt, afraid, and unable. Both ends of this spectrum represent perfectly acceptable emotions, but because firefighters believe they must be “tough,” they often “stuff it” when it comes to emotions. They hide their emotions and develop a secret depression that weighs heavily deep inside of them. I have seen this in both men and women firefighters; sometimes, the women have an even greater burden to hide their emotions on the job because of the fear of being seen as weak.
Rescuer’s Depression can be hard to spot, and it may look harmless because of the way firefighters often deal with it. Instead of sulking, they will often turn to action: Workaholism, obsessive hobbies, and excessive exercise/sports are just some examples. Usually, they will self-medicate with the sense of achievement they get from these activities.4 If these activities do not satisfy them, firefighters often turn toward more obvious and less healthy outlets such as drinking, drug use, and engaging in dangerous or sexually unsafe activities that give them that surge of dopamine to make them feel temporarily better.
Staying extremely busy—a trademark of many firefighters—is a way of running away from your own thoughts or “compulsive overactivity.”5 Compulsive overactivity makes it so that you never have time to feel or connect with your feelings and memories. By keeping busy, firefighters can block out painful emotions and memories. In other words, people can run toward something as they run away from something else.4 Those around them might not be able to spot their Rescuer’s Depression because busyness can look like the opposite of depression.4 In a society that values productivity, keeping busy can actually be praised. However, when people mask their depression, it leads to superficial relationships/decreased intimacy, anger, and emotional imbalances.
Depression + Anger. Constant anger can be a sign of depression. People who have difficulty coping with their anger may turn it inward.2 Rescuer’s Depression often shows up as anger. Why? Because anger is easier than other emotions. Sadness is a much more passive experience, whereas anger feels more active, and firefighters are people of action. Depressed people distract themselves from sadness, but they can get angry easily because the emotion is right beneath the surface. Anger almost always shows that there is something more going on.2
Typically, men and women with an instrumentality personality6 show anger instead of sadness when they’re depressed. Part of Rescuer’s Depression is attempting to isolate oneself. Anger is effective at pushing people away, and it’s the isolated who are more vulnerable to suicidal ideation.
Healing from Depression. Firefighters can heal from depression by becoming more assertive about their needs and boundaries.7 They can also increase awareness of their emotions. Think of it as building your “emotional vocabulary.”8 Rather than oversimplifying every emotion into the “anger” category, finding distinctions between anger, sadness, insecurity, frustration, feeling overwhelmed, and so on can shed light on what a firefighter truly needs.
For an individual to take his life by suicide, he needs both the desire and the ability to commit suicide.9 This desire to commit suicide comes from both a perception of being burdensome and a low sense of belonging.9 The most vulnerable times for suicidal ideation in a firefighter’s life are during an injury/a sickness/post-traumatic stress and during the transition to retirement because he may feel like a burden and, simultaneously, experience a lessened sense of belonging.
When a firefighter is put on leave because of an injury, a sickness, or post-traumatic stress, he is often left alone with his thoughts. During this time, he is confronted by his sense of an inability to complete the tasks that were formerly easy for him and, therefore, begins to feel like a burden to those around him.
Cancer is one of the most significant ailments firefighters face. Cancer patients have as much as a 20 percent higher suicide rate than the general population, depending on the stage of cancer treatment.10,11 Their greatest risk period is in the first year (with the highest being in the first three months) after diagnosis.11 These firefighter patients feel unable to help, and they do not like feeling incapable and needy; they may perceive themselves as a burden. Similarly, as with any illness, when a firefighter sustains a post-traumatic stress injury, he may feel frustrated by his inability to function as he previously did as well as his dissociative feelings, which disconnect him from himself and those around him. Thus, suicide risk is high for those with PTSD.
This sense of being burdensome can be exaggerated by firefighters’ past experiences. Often, firefighters have adversity in their pasts such as the death of a parent, bullying, emotional neglect, adultification (having to grow up too soon), or physical or sexual abuse. These motivate people to help others and are often the reason they choose to become firefighters.12 Their pain creates a desire to protect others from the pain they experienced as children, and it can grow into a compulsive need to take care of people. When the means to satisfy this need are taken away, as with an injury, they may feel purposeless and burdensome.9
Thomas Joiner’s theory of suicide requires that firefighters have the capability of taking their own lives. They develop this ability over time. The firefighter’s repeated exposure to injury, combined with the typical firefighter personality type ESTP/ISTP, which is predisposed to “daredevil” behaviors, sets him up for self-harm. Reckless behavior is a part of his “work up to suicide.”13 He will gradually accumulate experiences of self-harm, making him fearless about death and desensitizing him to suicide.
Sometimes, firefighters within the same community will commit suicide within a short period of one another, known as “contagion suicide.” It is believed that repeated exposure to suicide removes the taboo of suicide, making it seem feasible for many firefighters. Suicidologist Edwin Shneidman believed suicide stems from an individual’s deep, unbearable psychological pain, which he called “psychache.”14 Many firefighters have an empathetic temperament, which causes them to feel deeply. However, they may also feel they need to hide their private pain from their outward persona, as in Rescuer’s Depression. They may have an “internal narrator” who hates and attacks the negative feelings (shame for emotions), and they will begin to feel isolated and will disengage from family and friends.14
However, Shneidman recognized that most suicides come with warning signs.14 In fact, about 80 percent of those who commit suicide talk about it beforehand,14 but they are torn between wanting and not wanting to die. Often, their desire to commit suicide is concentrated and most intense during a short window of time, during which they should be monitored closely. And, after which, their likelihood of committing suicide goes down significantly.
Recently, Thomas Joiner proposed a new diagnosis for individuals who have rapid-onset suicidal ideation, called Acute Suicidal Affective Disturbance (ASAD).15 In my experience, when an individual develops ASAD, it is often related to a tragic call at work or a significant personal loss that deeply affected the firefighter. This is why every firefighter needs to be surrounded by a healthy, robust support network to keep him emotionally well.
As firefighters spiral downward, they often will thaw out by having a few beers. The danger is that this can get out of hand quickly as they continue to reach for more and more alcohol to numb the pain. For those who do not turn to alcohol, they may find themselves calming down by reaching for other substances or even behaviors such as gambling, pornography, and extramarital affairs, among other addictive behaviors.
Addictions come with a few key behaviors such as compulsive behavior, craving, temporary pleasure or relief, negative consequences, denial, shame, and brain circuits that release dopamine during the “hunt” for the substance or behavior.16 At the core of addiction is the brain’s circuitry. In each addiction, the substance or behavior either excites or inhibits the brain’s signals. Over time, the brain’s neurotransmitters adjust to the addiction, creating, more or less, natural neurotransmitters that rely on the substance or behavior to feel okay again.
However, Psychologist Gabor Maté thinks this is only half of the story. He says, “I don’t medicalize addiction. In fact, I’m saying the opposite of what the American Society of Addiction Medicine asserts in defining addiction as a primary brain disorder. In my view, an addiction is an attempt to solve a life problem, usually one involving emotional pain or stress. It arises out of an unresolved life problem that the individual has no positive solution for. Only secondarily does it begin to act like a disease.”16
So, why do people have addictions? Addictions serve a purpose in the addict’s life: comfort, distraction from pain, stress relief, calming down, and so on. Though the substance or behavior does not effectively meet the needs of the person, it still serves a valid purpose in his life.16
People with addictions are six times more likely to take their lives.17 The strongest predictor of suicide is alcoholism, which is connected with 50 percent of suicides. In the United States, one in three people who die by suicide is under the influence of opiates or alcohol.17 So, we must closely monitor those with addictions for suicidal ideation.
Stress and Trauma
Trauma is an event that poses a significant threat to the individual or a series of events that are intense, continuous, or recurring and seem to have no means from which to escape.18 It can be an injury, a wound, or a hurt that caused the individual to have a sense of helplessness, loss, and fear afterward, making it impossible to feel safe, confident, balanced, and happy. When trauma occurs, the body releases a profound amount of survival hormones and energy but lacks the ability to use that energy for effective action. Elements of trauma can include a perpetual sense of terror, despair, hopelessness, and disconnection after an event or injury.18
For firefighters, the most traumatic events are the following19 :
- Catastrophic loss of life.
- Incidents involving children.
- Individuals with significant blood loss or horrible pain.
- The death of a fellow first responder.
- Presence of emotionally evocative contrasting details (i.e., a “Just Married” sign on a car in which the newlywed occupants have been killed).
- Preventable tragedies involving human error.
- Events involving unknown substances or causes.
- Conditions of prolonged uncertainty, where the worst is yet to come (i.e., earthquake aftershocks).
- Prolonged contact with the dead/injured.
- Loss of life following intense rescue efforts.
- Unusual or distressing sights or sounds (i.e., falling bodies at Ground Zero).
- Lack of opportunity for effective action (i.e., the search for bodies at Ground Zero).
- Knowing the victim.
- Family members on the scene.
After experiencing a traumatic event, firefighters can show immediate signs of distress, or signs could show hours, days, weeks, and even years after the event. These signs, symptoms, and effects of trauma include hypervigilance/hyperstartle reflexes; unprovoked rage and violence, which are signs of diminished capacity to self-regulate and self-soothe; impulsive responses such as intense emotions that drive actions and reactions; the ability to process information; feelings of numbness, helplessness, and hopelessness; fear and terror; intrusive memories and flashbacks; anxiety and panic attacks; depression; insomnia, night terrors, or sleepwalking; lack of openness; repetitive, compulsive, and destructive behaviors (including sexual behaviors); inter- and intra-personal challenges; body image issues; feeling like “the living dead” or “the walking wounded”; difficulties focusing and concentrating; intrusive memories and flashbacks; and disassociation.18
Trauma and the Brain
These responses occur primarily because of the physiological responses the brain undergoes in a traumatic experience. Normally, the brain operates under control of the frontal lobes; this part of the brain is responsible for thinking, reasoning, planning, controlling impulses, and containing emotions. When memories are made, memory is encoded with the help of the frontal lobes and the hippocampus so experiences are remembered in context and in sequence.19
In an emergency or danger, the human brain reacts with a fight-or-flight response. If the danger is surmountable, we may choose to stand our ground and fight. If we can outrun or avoid the danger, we flee. During trauma, memory is encoded in intense fragments—sights, smells, and sounds—that can come back as flashbacks or nightmares afterward19 because the amygdala, responsible for secreting norepinephrine and dopamine (neurotransmitters) in response to fear, takes over in emergencies. Norepinephrine and dopamine handicap the frontal lobes, making them unable to encode experiences in normal context and sequence. Even during an event where the firefighter is not in danger, he can experience vicarious trauma because of a type of neurons in the human brain called “mirror neurons.” Like animals, humans have mirror neurons in the brain, which send signals when they see someone else doing the same action. The other person’s/animal’s action registers with the brain, and the individual subconsciously mimics that person’s body language and emotional state. Firefighters often experience this when they arrive at a stressful call. Mirror neurons are a part of our empathy response to others, and they can cause firefighters to feel intensely fearful and overwhelmed by other emotions based on the emotional state of the other people on scene.
A third response that often happens in emergencies is called the “freeze response.” In the fight-or-flight response, individuals stay associated with the experience to fight or flee. In the freeze response, the brain dissociates the individual from the trauma being experienced. Cortisol (the “stress hormone”) levels shoot up, the heart races, the muscles tense, and energy surges through our body.20 The freeze response is also called “tonic immobility” or “playing dead.”21 It is a survival tactic that the mind uses to shut down mental output to the body. It’s involuntary, like a reflex. No matter what you say you’ll do, you may not be able to override this reflex in the moment.21
The purpose of “freezing” is to give us a chance to disassociate from the trauma we are experiencing. However, when we freeze or hold still in the face of danger, our levels of cortisol build up within us. Without a release, the cortisol can wreak havoc on our minds and bodies.20 Even though it is extremely common, the freeze response is never your friend. Seventy percent of rape victims experience the freeze response/tonic immobility.21 However, those who experience tonic immobility are three times more likely to experience PTSD and 3½ times more likely to develop severe depression than those who did not.21 Worse still, each time a person freezes, the body reacts the same way as in a previous trauma because it recorded the previous incident as a “success” because the individual survived.21 The truth remains that tonic immobility is a reflex, and individuals cannot control it. A study conducted on emergency room nurses found that when people don’t have the chance to “let go” or “thaw out” after freezing in the face of danger, they can develop PTSD, phobias, panic attacks, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and various anxieties.20
Movement is good in emergencies; it helps us to release cortisol and take action for our survival. However, some situations do not allow firefighters to move, even without the freeze response kicking in. In those situations, if movement is not possible, there is another suitable substitute to lower cortisol levels and focus action: intentional breathing in the moment. Deep, slow inhaling and exhaling can regulate the heart rate and focus the thinking for effective action and lower cortisol levels.
A recent study looked at intentional breathing and found that exhaling in deep, long breaths can activate the parasympathetic nervous system.22 This happens because, during exhalation, the vagus nerve secretes a neurotransmitter substance (ACh) that engages the parasympathetic nervous system to decelerate the heart rate.22
Breathing and movement can be extremely helpful for physically working cortisol out of the body. One study of nurses from the University of New Mexico Hospital with positive PTSD symptoms participated in 16 sessions of 60-minute mind-body intervention (MBX) sessions led by a trained instructor over an eight-week period. The program consisted of stretching, balancing, and breathing with a focus on mindfulness. At the end of the program, the MBX group showed a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms, serum cortisol, improved sleep, stress resilience, energy levels, better emotional regulation under stress, and resumption of pleasurable activities that they had previously discontinued.20
Trauma and the Nervous System
There are two major nervous systems in the body that govern its functions: the central nervous system (CNS)—the brain and spinal column—and the peripheral nervous system, which includes the autonomic (ANS) and somatic nervous systems. The somatic nervous system controls voluntary processes and transmits from the body to the brain including muscle contractions, touch, motion, pain, balance, emotions, and feelings. The ANS controls the body’s involuntary processes such as regulation of organs, metabolism, and homeostasis, including the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS alerts in emergency situations and mobilizes the body for fight-or-flight responses; it sends information to the limbs, increases sensitivity to danger, and energizes the body for action. The SNS is responsible for increased heart rate, dilation of bronchial tubes, contraction of the muscles (especially in the arms, legs, hands, and feet to mobilize for fighting or fleeing), dilation of the pupils, decrease in stomach movement and secretion, decreased saliva production, adrenaline release, increased glycogen to glucose conversion, and decreased urination output.23
When an individual lives at a heightened state of stress or alertness, the SNS is activated for much longer than it should be, which can result in issues with digestion, the heart, and systemic health problems that only go away when the individual is intentional to activate his PNS and return to a state of rest and digestion.23 The PNS is connected with rest and digestion in daily functioning. In day-to-day life, the PNS should govern the body’s functions.
After an emergency, firefighters who are intentional about activating the PNS can heal and come back to their baseline. Focusing on physical sensation—the five senses, breathing deeply, muscle relaxation, equal-timed breathing, positive mental focus and emotion, regular meditation practice, an optimistic attitude, and yoga—can all activate the PNS.23 These may sound simple to some firefighters, but true firefighter emotional wellness starts with simple, routine self-care practices.
Post-traumatic stress is a natural physiological response to a traumatic event.24 Today, many psychologists prefer to call it “post-traumatic stress injury” rather than “disorder” because “disorder” sounds like an unnatural problem or a permanent state. Post-traumatic stress is both natural and can be resolved with help!
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), the five criteria for PTSD include life-threatening incidents, intrusion, avoidance, negative thoughts and feelings, and hyperarousal. The APA’s DSM-5 also shows that the five qualifiers for PTSD include duration, functional significance, exclusion, dissociative symptoms, and delayed expression. One of the physical indications of a post-traumatic stress injury is seen in the brain. A brain with post-traumatic stress loses volume overall, shows increases in ventricle size, and shows shrinkage in the hippocampus.25
As a firefighter, you must recognize that the duty to serve and rescue civilians cannot be fulfilled if there is not, at the same time, a duty to care for yourself. Self-care is not indulgent; it is a discipline that requires tough-mindedness, a deep understanding of your priorities, respect for yourself, and respect for the people with whom you choose to spend your life.26 Self-care is a regular practice of daily, weekly, and monthly behaviors, not something you need to “indulge” in just to restore balance.
Firefighters can invest in their own emotional wellness by taking care of themselves, which includes the following:
- Maintaining a good work-life balance.
- Exercising to relieve stress. Good examples of beneficial exercise are yoga, lifting weights, hiking, running, and walking. All will increase the production of endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.
- Meditating. This can control anxiety, reduce stress, improve your overall mental health, and fight addictions. Walking is a great way to meditate if you find it difficult to sit still.
- Developing a good social network and support system.
- Using humor to unwind. This includes watching a comedy, playing with a pet, and reading a funny book.
- Reconnecting with Mother Nature. This includes hiking, camping, hunting, and fishing.
- Engaging in hobbies. This can include woodworking, target shooting, camping, and golfing.
- Meeting with a counselor to discuss concerns.
- Repeating enjoyable activities you’ve done before.
- Trying new positive experiences.
- Making a list of things for which you’re grateful.
- Building or mending relationships with friends or family.
- Breaking free from addictions or “crutches.”
Nutrition is also a key component of firefighter emotional wellness. Many psychologists have begun implementing nutrition practices to help balance the mind and restore the whole person’s health. In fact, some nutrients have antidepressant properties including folate, which is found in spinach, oranges, mustard greens, and broccoli; iron, which is found in oysters, lentils, spinach, and dark chocolate; omega-3 fatty acids, which are found in salmon, herring, walnuts, and flaxseeds; vitamin A, which is found in green leafy vegetables, broccoli, pumpkin, and carrots; vitamin C, which is found in bell peppers, oranges, strawberries, and cauliflower; and zinc, which is found in oysters, lobster, crab, and almonds.27
Exercise as Self-Care
Regular physical activity is key to overall health and resilience; it builds “physiological toughness.” Physiological toughness is your body’s ability to release just the right combination of hormones for you to perform optimally in a stressful or traumatic situation. When you put your body in a situation where you are uncomfortable (such as swimming in a cold pool), you have control over the situation, and you give your body adequate recovery time, you teach your body to release just the right balance of hormones that make you more agile, quicker, stronger, and able to remain emotionally sound in emergencies. Exercise also trains your mind to release a powerful combination of hormones to help you deal with stress and perform well under pressure.28
Exercise facilitates information processing and memory functions. It burns off cortisol and the hormones that shut off the prefrontal cortex. When you exercise, you bring yourself back to your baseline. Whether you are worked up about something temporary or you are dealing with chronic stress, exercise can bring you back to a state of calm and well-being. Even just a 20-minute jog can do wonders for decreasing stress and calming your mind.
Self-Care for Addiction Recovery
One of the most powerful tools to free yourself from addiction is self-care. Individuals struggling with addiction are “masters of self-neglect.” To recover, they must learn “consistent and effective self-care.” Research shows that exercise, sleep, healthy eating, and mindful breathing increase self-control. Self-care requires dealing with uncomfortable feelings in healthy ways, healthy relaxation, and having fun apart from addiction. It also means practicing self-compassion and ending self-criticism because a self-critical mindset decreases one’s ability to successfully change.29
Learning to trust others in some form is essential for recovery from an addiction. For those who have experienced loss or betrayal, going without having their emotional needs met in the past, or having had their trust broken—leaving them with deep emotional wounds, trusting others can be new and scary territory. It can be so much easier to trust a substance or an addictive experience than a person, but connection with others is the key ingredient in recovery; this can be a partner, a therapist, an accountability partner, a peer supporter, or a Higher Power. The opposite of addiction is not sobriety but connection. Unless the addict learns to connect with himself and others, long-term recovery will not occur. Understanding emotions is foundational to learning how to connect.16
Recognizing that previous losses and emotional pain are major contributors to addiction is the first step in recognizing an addiction. Because many have not learned to identify their emotions accurately, the second part is learning what feelings are, identifying and naming them, and learning to express them to others. Then, learning how to connect with others and regulating emotions in a healthy way are foundational parts of addiction recovery.
Essentially, moving meditation means going for a walk to give yourself some space to think. Walking gives your body something to do while your mind sorts things out. And, if you walk long enough, your mind clears itself and you actually stop thinking.
When you walk, your body releases serotonin (a neurotransmitter that helps you feel better) and begins combat depression immediately; it also activates your PNS. Working out at a higher speed is great for releasing dopamine in the brain, which is another type of neurotransmitter associated with feeling better. So, I recommend 20 minutes of cardio as a way of destressing. However, that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Mindful meditation is walking for the sake of thinking, not exercising. It is a conscious rest. When your arms and legs move, it triggers bilateral stimulation of your brain. This means you are using both sides of your brain, so you can use logic and creativity to make sense of a situation. This can help you find better clarity on the situation.
Yoga for PTSD
Yoga offers innumerable benefits for those sorting through trauma and PTSD. I have seen what it can do for struggling firefighters. Yoga is useful in reducing stress; connecting your mind, body, and spirit; boosting good neurotransmitters in your brain30; toning the vagus nerve31; activating the PNS23; equipping you with self-regulation tools; restructuring stressful memories32; strengthening communication with the brain32; reenergizing your body; and reversing the negative effects of chronic pain.22
The beautiful thing about trauma is that those who are forced to walk through it often gain a brand-new perspective on life when they come out on the other end of it. These positive psychological changes equip a firefighter to recover faster from future trauma or adversity and develop in him a renewed appreciation for life.
When explaining her grief over a lost relationship, Hailey Magee said, “Feel it. It’s going to hurt. But every moment you’re sobbing, you’re doing the work. Every moment you’re hurting, you’re healing. The only way out is through …. I could celebrate the work I was doing, even when that work was breaking into sobs, for the third time that day, on the half-mile walk home. My pain and grief had meaning. It could serve a purpose. It could serve me …. When we allow ourselves to fully experience painful or uncomfortable feelings, we are doing work. Sitting with our feelings instead of disengaging or distracting ourselves is work.”33
What if, instead of seeing pain as a breaking, we viewed it as a tunnel through which we must walk to find healing? Instead of “trying not to talk about it,” what if we made a point to talk about it openly within trusted relationships? What if we gave ourselves the dignity of a personal “high five” every time we let ourselves cry about it?
I bet there’d be a lot more firefighters alive down the road who steered clear of suicidal thinking and action because they felt the permission to walk through the “tunnel of sadness” and find healing instead of sweeping emotions under the rug and letting it silently decay their souls.
A New Perspective on Life
Post-traumatic growth usually shows up in an individual’s connection, compassion, and contribution.34 The person will feel a new sense of connection with himself, others, or something beyond. He may say things like, “I have a greater sense of closeness with others,” or “I changed my priorities about what’s important in life.”
The person will experience greater compassion for himself and others. He may seek forgiveness for wrongs done, or he may finally decide to forgive someone who hurt him in the past. You’ll hear him say, “I realized how silly that was,” or “It was finally time for me to let that go.” He may even notice growth in himself and say something like, “I know better that I can handle difficulties,” or “I’m stronger for it.” On reflection, he may say, “I discovered that I’m stronger than I thought I was,” or “I’ve really grown through this.”
Marks of resilient people. In my years as a first responder counselor, I have become attuned to the traits of a person who is struggling in this career. I have also become attuned to what resiliency looks like. People who are resilient unknowingly apply the seven resiliencies to their lives daily.35 These people speak up for their needs, select quality friends, are comfortable in solitude, use physical activity and other self-care practices regularly, and talk about things with perspective.
Self-care means recharging your batteries. Perhaps the biggest key to resiliency is self-care. I love the analogy of the battery when it comes to resiliency because it paints a more realistic picture of emotional energy than the idea of a person gritting it out as things just get harder around him. You don’t get tough by just “toughing it out” for longer; resiliency is about how you recharge.1
Like a battery, you can’t just keep going and going without taking time to recharge. Eventually, your battery will “die” and you’ll need a more significant mental or physical health rest period. You need regular, intentional times to disconnect from your work and plug yourself into things that energize you.
Productivity rises when people take time to recharge. Think of your phone being on power-saving mode. It’s not as bright or effective at doing its job when it has a low battery, but when it’s freshly unplugged, it is radiant and powerful! People who choose to stop, intentionally giving themselves a break from work for rest, find themselves not only more emotionally well but also more effective at their jobs.
For firefighters to be emotionally well, they must engage in intentional, regular self-care practices. This commitment to caring for themselves may go against their others-focused nature, but it must become a top priority for them to remain effective at their jobs. I encourage every firefighter to implement as many suggestions as possible from this article. It is my hope that those who are struggling will reach out for help from a trusted friend, a counselor, or a peer supporter. Together, we truly can become our strongest selves!
1. Gielan, SA. “Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure.” Harvard Business Review. March 12, 2018. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/06/resilience-is-about-how-you-recharge-not-how-you-endure.
2. Blackwood, E. “The Depression Symptom We Rarely Talk About.” March 5, 2019. Huffington Post. www.huffingtonpost.ca/entry/depression-anger-symptom_l_5c5858d0e4b087104755e3d1.
3. Psychology Today. “Depressive Disorders.” 2016. www.psychologytoday.com.
4. Reysen R, Winburn A, Niemeyer S, and Monroe A. “The Relationship Between Workaholism Tendencies and Stage of Development in a K-12 Teacher Population.” 2014. Journal of Contemporary Research in Education. 2: 105-114.
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6. Joiner, TE. Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success. 2011. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
7. Denney, R. “Male Depression.” May 30, 2014. Hattiesburg Clinic. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z3JurHgOVQg.
8. Goff S, Thomas D, and Trevathan M. Are My Kids on Track?: The 12 Emotional, Social, and Spiritual Milestones Your Child Needs to Reach. 2017. United States: Baker Publishing Group.
9. Joiner, TE. Why People Die by Suicide. 2007. London: First Harvard University Press.
10. Henson KE, Brock R, Charnock J, et.al. “Risk of Suicide After Cancer Diagnosis in England.” JAMA Psychiatry. 2019;76(1):51-60. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2018.3181.
11. Saad AM, Gad MM, Al‐Husseini MJ, et. al. “Suicidal death within a year of a cancer diagnosis: A population‐based study.” 2019. Cancer, 125: 972-979. doi:10.1002/cncr.31876.
12. Viorst, J. Necessary Losses. 1986. New York: Simon and Schuster.
13. Joiner, TE. Phone interview. September 3, 2019.
14. Leenars, AA. Review Edwin S. Shneidman on Suicide. Suicidology Online, 1, 5-18. doi:10.4324/9781315130576-4. 2010.
15. Stanley I, Rufino K, Rogers M, et. al. Acute Suicidal Affective Disturbance (ASAD): A confirmatory factor analysis with 1,442 psychiatric inpatients. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 80. 10.1016/j.jpsychires.2016.06.012. 2016.
16. Simon R and L. Dockett. “The Addict in All of Us.” Psychotherapy Networker. July/August, 2017.
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JADA HUDSON, MS, LCPC, CADC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Hudson is dedicated to helping firefighters process and heal from trauma, pediatric death, substance abuse, depression, and retirement transitions. She is also is a national trainer in first responder emotional wellness. She develops presentations and training for firefighters, law enforcement, nurses, dispatch, and other emergency workers as well as for first responder leaders and counselors. She is a regular trainer for the Illinois Law Enforcement Training and Standards Board Law Enforcement Executive Institute. Hudson has also trained groups at the Illinois State Police Academy, the National Fire Academy, the Fire Department Instructors Conference International, and the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System.