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Identifying & Overcoming PTSD in First Responders

05/22/2023

Every day, firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, police officers, and other first responders throw themselves into dangerous situations. Some witness death and violence or leave with life-threatening injuries. Even an ordinary day at work involves stress and uncertainty. Over time, the trauma can build up until the first responder suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Institutes of Health reports about 30% of first responders suffer from PTSD. Paramedics rank the highest, with 15% reporting PTSD symptoms. When the symptoms start, seeking first responder PTSD treatment programs right away can prevent a serious intervention later on.

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Causes and Risk Factors for PTSD in First Responders

First responders witness catastrophic events that other people rarely experience. As a result, they need specialized care for their PTSD.

Traumatic Events for First Responders

Events that can cause PTSD in first responders include:

  • Car accidents
  • Homicides
  • Suicides
  • House fires
  • Sexual assault
  • Domestic abuse
  • Overdose deaths
  • Severe injuries
  • Child deaths
  • Explosions
  • Gang violence

In extreme cases, first responders witness terrorism, war crimes, natural disasters, and mass casualties. A group or individual could also directly threaten or assault a first responder, causing personal trauma.

Risk Factors for Developing PTSD

Many people dismiss first responder PTSD symptoms, believing it’s what they signed up for. A first responder with PTSD might even doubt their strength. They underwent months of training, and they’re operating at peak physical capacity. They wonder, “Why am I so weak?”

Others have trauma unrelated to their career. A history of domestic abuse, threats, and sexual assault resurfaces whenever they encounter a triggering event. Other people could avoid triggers, but first responders have to see them every day.

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Signs and Symptoms of PTSD in First Responders

Some first responders initially ignore PTSD symptoms, thinking they should tough it out. However, untreated PTSD leads to worsening symptoms and potential substance abuse.

Physical Symptoms of PTSD

The following symptoms are part of the PTSD trauma response:

  • Shaking hands
  • Excessive sweating
  • Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • Ringing ears
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Racing heart
  • Headaches
  • Sore muscles
  • High blood pressure
Emotional Symptoms of PTSD

Common emotional reactions to triggers include:

  • Irritability
  • Sudden outbursts
  • Panic attacks
  • Vivid flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Dissociation
  • Hypervigilance
  • Intrusive thoughts
  • Depression
  • Insomnia

Additionally, first responders may feel guilt or shame if they failed to prevent a situation, such as a drug overdose. When left untreated, these symptoms often lead to self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

Behavioral Symptoms of PTSD

Over time, relationships with family and friends start to deteriorate. The individual may isolate themselves, declining to visit friends or attend holiday parties. Loved ones notice increased aggression and feel like they take everything the wrong way. Some complain that the individual isn’t as fun as they used to be.

If they can’t find counseling, many individuals turn to drug and alcohol abuse. The substances provide temporary relief from their symptoms, but their PTSD worsens as their addiction takes over their lives. Their disorder drives more people away, further isolating them until they feel they have nowhere to turn.

Challenges in Recognizing and Addressing PTSD

Many first responders don’t recognize PTSD in themselves, assuming that depression and anxiety come with the job. Others believe they’re too strong to have PTSD. Some suspect they have a problem, but their social circle looks down on counseling, making them feel weak if they seek help. They ignore the signs until their trauma becomes too severe to ignore.

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Impact of PTSD on First Responders

Trauma impacts virtually every aspect of the individual’s life. When they seek counseling, they finally realize how much they lost.

Effects of PTSD on Work Performance

 

First responders have to return to the environment that caused PTSD in the first place. Their symptoms worsen as they repeatedly expose themselves to danger, destruction, and casualties. As a result, they lose composure in emergency situations and have to cancel their shifts.

Effects of PTSD on Personal Relationships

At times, trauma leads people to push others away. Their hypervigilance leads to irritability, outbursts, and mistrust of other people, which damages their relationships. PTSD also drains their energy, making it difficult for them to stay in touch with friends and relatives.

Effects of PTSD on Overall Well-Being

The combined stress causes sleeplessness, body aches, fatigue, migraines, and a weakened immune system. Trouble functioning leads to decreased self-esteem and thoughts of guilt and worthlessness, which worsens their depression. Trauma can also lead them away from religious or spiritual practices.

Treatment Options for PTSD in First Responders

When a resident checks into rehab, doctors create a treatment plan that may include some of these options. Inpatient therapy often includes supplemental care, such as art and equine therapy.

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Therapy for PTSD

Counselors often rely on the following techniques:

Cognitive behavior therapy (CBT): Patients find the flaws in their thinking patterns and evaluate situations more clearly.

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Medication for PTSD

Doctors often prescribe medication to ease PTSD symptoms, such as depression, anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation, and paranoia. Medication can also assist with withdrawal symptoms and drug cravings. Alleviating these symptoms helps clients focus on practicing techniques they learn in counseling.

The Importance of Early Intervention and Ongoing Support

No one is beyond help, but first responders who enter rehab within a few months have higher success rates than people who lived with untreated PTSD for a decade. Early intervention can manage symptoms before they get out of hand, enabling clients to return to work.

Likewise, first responders need ongoing support, so they continue their progress, keep attending therapy, and know where to turn if they have a crisis. A supportive home and work environment eliminates some of the stress that contributes to their mental illness.

Strategies for Coping with PTSD in First Responders

Practicing healthy behaviors and seeking professional help can show first responders a life outside of PTSD.

Self-Care

Setting personal aside time encourages people to focus, appreciate their strengths, and make peace with their lives. Common methods include journaling, meditating, exercising outside, and taking afternoon naps.

Resources and Support

Local and state resources for first responders may include hotlines, support groups, and free or affordable counseling. The National Alliance on Mental Health also raises awareness for this issue.

Professional Treatment

Rehab covers every aspect of PTSD: prior trauma, career-induced stress, substance abuse, physical conditions, and damaged relationships. Clients also gain a support group that guides them through challenges and relates to their unique experiences.

Learn More About Trauma-Focused Therapy for First Responders at Beachway

Beachway Therapy Center offers specialized care for first responders dealing with PTSD, mental issues, and substance abuse disorders. Call 877-284-0353 to discuss compassionate, judgment-free treatment options.