Managing PTSD As A Firefighter

By Joseph Hunter, M.A. – First Responder Wellness Program

Firefighters face dangerous and traumatic events on a daily basis.  There is no way to know or predict which event could affect a firefighter negatively enough to cause post-traumatic stress disorder.

Unfortunately, in a culture of bravery and pride, asking for help can be seen as weakness and many do not seek the help they need.  They can be left to deal with PTSD on their own and revisit difficult and negative emotions over and over again.  Firefighters can feel like they are trapped in a painful past.

If you have noticed long periods of stress that has disrupted your home and work life, asking for help is nothing to be ashamed of.  Find out more about getting help for your PTSD.

If you have been trying to cope on your own but you can’t seem to manage certain triggers, it could be time for some additional care.  This is especially true if you’ve turned to substances use to help you cope.  Many firefighters struggling with PTSD find comfort in drugs or alcohol, not realizing that continued substance use does more harm than good.  If this sounds like you, it may be time to reach out for help.

Check out the nine questions below, and if you answer yes to six or more of them, it may mean it’s time to seek treatment for your PTSD:

  1. Do upsetting thoughts or memories about a traumatic event come into your mind against your will?
  2. Do you have upsetting dreams about the event?
  3. Do you feel as though it might happen again?
  4. Do you feel upset by reminders of the event?
  5. Do you have bodily reactions (i.e. fast heartbeat, sweating, dizziness) when you are reminded of the event?
  6. Do you have difficulty sleeping on a regular basis?
  7. Do you have irritability or angry outbursts?
  8. Do you have difficulty concentrating throughout the day?
  9. Do you have a heightened awareness of potential dangers to yourself and others?

PTSD may feel like it’s too much to overcome, but there are many effective treatments to help you manage triggers and heal. These treatments include:

  • Cognitive therapy: This helps you understand and think of your trauma differently.
  • Exposure therapy: By talking about the trauma you can take control of your feelings and better overcome your triggers
  • Group therapy: Sharing your experience with others can help you build self-confidence.
  • Family therapy: A therapist can help you and your family communicate, maintain good relationships, and cope with tough emotions.
  • Medications: SSRIs can be helpful and effective.
  • Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR): While thinking or talking about your trauma you will learn to focus on other stimuli like eye movements or hand taps.

While treatment helps you recover from PTSD and substance use, the pain from trauma can take more time to overcome.  The following coping skills can help you maintain your mental health in daily life and work situations:

  • Maintain a support system made up of friends and family
  • Join a support group with other first responders like you
  • Monitor your symptoms and ask for help when needed
  • Keep a positive attitude
  • Find healthy distractions
  • Keep a daily journal
  • Practice mindfulness with practices like meditation
  • Exercise regularly to maintain your physical and mental health

The bravest thing a first responder can do is ask for help when they need it.  Reaching out is much harder than retreating, but it is necessary to get the treatment you need and move forward with a healthier life.  Firefighters face daily dangers that many people will never see in their lifetimes.  This fearlessness should translate to not being afraid to ask for help.

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