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Understanding the Impact of Stress and PTSD in Firefighters


Firefighter standing on the edge of a burnt forest from a forest fire struggling with PTSD

Firefighters are regarded as heroes in our society, bravely facing the most challenging and perilous situations to protect lives, community and property. The demands of their profession, however, go far beyond the courageous exterior we see.


Firefighters deal with such a wide range of emergency calls extending beyond just fires, such as rescuing victims of car collisions, search and rescue operations and even disaster aid. These emergencies all demand an iron-clad will and sense of duty to help unfortunate people in their times in need, without consideration for the firefighters state of mind.


What is PTSD?


Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that can develop in some people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. It is a type of anxiety disorder that can occur after exposure to a life-threatening or intensely distressing situation. While commonly associated with combat veterans, PTSD can affect anyone who has experienced trauma.


Firefighters are constantly exposed


Behind the scenes, firefighters grapple with an array of stressors that can have profound effects on their mental health. We’re going to delve into the intricate landscape of a firefighter's life, understanding the impact of stress and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on their well-being and the steps which can be taken to find relief when possible.


Compared to the general population in the US, firefighters are pre-disposed to having a higher rate of PTSD compared to other professions. This report found that firefighters exposed to routine daily adverse events showed a mean prevalence of probable PTSD of 14.3% compared to just 3.5% in the general Canadian population.


For those who experience the daily weight of highly stressful situations and symptoms of PTSD, please consider the following suggestions as options you can take to support yourself and those around you.


Seeking professional help


Seeking the help of a professional is highly recommended for those experiencing mental health struggles. We as humans are social creatures and the presence of mental health issues can feel like an isolating issue, especially in professions which priorities a strong mental resilience, it can make us feel as though we can’t speak out to our peers. A professional therapist is able to listen to and help you understand the issues you’re facing, in all their severity. They can provide the tools to help you recognise these moments and thoughts, and allow you to navigate your way through them.


Forms of effective professional support for firefighters include:


Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

CBT is a widely used and effective form of psychotherapy that focuses on the connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. CBT is based on the premise that our thoughts influence our emotions and behaviors, and by identifying and changing negative thought patterns, individuals can improve their emotional well-being.


Dialectical Behavioural Therapy (DBT)

Developed by Dr. Marsha Linehan in the late 1980s, DBT is a type of cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) that combines behavioral science with concepts from Eastern mindfulness practices. It was initially designed to treat individuals with borderline personality disorder (BPD) but has since been adapted for use in treating various mental health conditions.


Pharmaceutical Therapy

The idea of an office clinic make not work for the schedule of a firefighter, so it is best to seek out support from those who either already support the industry in some form, or who can work at varying hours.


Developing coping mechanisms


If you suffer from high stress levels you may encounter situations when you are unable to find immediate help from a professional or friend. This is when you may find relief from experimenting with meditation and breathing techniques which aim to reduce your heart rate and bring you back into the moment. Such techniques include:


Meditation

Meditation can be used as a one-time activity or it can be factored into your day as a habitual practice. Meditation needn’t be an activity which takes one hour, it can be performed in as little as ten minutes. If you can find a quiet area to sit down, preferably alone, for 5-10 minutes you can experience the vast benefits.


Deep breathing techniques

Try Cyclic Sighing - breathe in through your nose, at the top of the inhale perform another short sharp inhale, followed by a deep exhale through your mouth which activates the nervous system. This method is clinically shown to reduce respiratory rate.


Seeking peer support groups


Being a firefighter leads to developing a community and “family” within your department, as so much time is spent together. They often spend 24-hour shifts together and find themselves spending more time in the station and on calls than they do at home or experiencing “free time”. They share meals, years of their life, celebrations and more.


This level of connection with one another offers the ability to discuss past traumatic experiences and mental health concerns within a safe space, with people who are likely going through similar.


This is where support groups also offer a helping hand. There are many cities across the US who have organizations holding dedicated peer support groups for firefighters to discuss their experience with stress and PTSD, and there are larger organizations who hold online groups. It can also be helpful to use online forums to voice concerns to others. This can be performed from the safety of a pseudonym and without judgement.


Help is a sign of strength


Remember that seeking help is a sign of great inner strength, and mental health is just as vitally important as physical health. For a firefighter to be performing at their best, both the physical body and mind need to be tended to, nurtured, and supported in the best ways possible.


Please reach out to a professional if you find yourself being affected by high levels of stress be it from work or home life, or from PTSD.

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