When to Reach Out:
At times it’s easy to recognize signs that you need to talk to someone, even if you feel reluctant to make a call. But while the difficult calls and shifts add up, you may underestimate the effects of trauma and stress — and it becomes easy to overlook the signs that you need support. Don’t be reluctant to ask for help if you are experiencing any of the following warning signs.
- Feeling irritable or angry: You may have a lack of patience for things that never used to bother you. It seems to happen at times when it doesn’t make sense to be that upset.
- Feeling anxious, depressed, lonely or constantly sad: You may feel down, moody, or notice that you feel happy much lessfrequently. The bad days seem to far outweigh the good days.
- Reliving traumatic events: You want to forget that call, the scene that unfolded, the devastation you responded to, but those memories keep reappearing, usually at unexpected times.
- Isolating and lack of trust in others: You may feel alone, and you preferto be alone. Usual interests and activities are no longer appealing to you. You may question whether anyone cares, including your leadership at work. You worry that even people who are normally close to you can’t understand how you feel.
- Experiencing compassion fatigue, burnout or moral injury: You may find it difficult to empathize with others, and are bothered by situations and events that feel very wrong to you. The cost of serving your community is taking a toll on you with every shift.
- Struggling to sleep or oversleeping: You may be negatively impacted by shiftwork and have little recovery time. Sleep is interrupted or elusive, and you never seem to feel rested.
- New or increased substance use: You may feel that it is much easier to find ease or solace with a few drinks. But you or someone close to you has noticed an increase in how much you are drinking.
You may also be experiencing physical issues that impact you in unexpected ways such as:
- Digestive and/or appetite problems
- Increased aches and pain
- Sexual and/or reproductive issues
- Executive function and memory problems
The COVID-19 pandemic has created some unusual circumstances in addition to the daily stressors you face in the public safety profession. It can seem overwhelming. These feelings are normal, but they can take a significant toll on your well-being.
It doesn’t mean that you are destined to have a long-term mental health condition because you’re experiencing this, but addressing signs and symptoms is vital to ensuring lifelong mental health and wellness.
Public safety professionals understand stress; it is the basis of your work. Responding to emergency calls, fighting fires or interacting as a member of the justice system involves remaining calm in disturbing and often unsafe situations. You rely on training and a necessary amount of desensitization to trauma in order to do your job. From the dispatcher taking the call, to the emergency responders on scene, your training ensures public safety and helps save lives.
Desensitization to stress and trauma allows your training to take over so you can effectively respond. It is necessary and helpful to learn to absorb some of the shock. But those shocks can still add up, and even what appears to be a routine call can have a profound and unexpected impact.
Resiliency reduces the harmful effects of stress and trauma, helping you maintain your well-being. Strengthening and adding protective factors like social support, access to resources, and caring for your physical health all serve to help you effectively counteract cumulative stress. Think of it as a core muscle that you can strengthen through exercise, but will atrophy without care.
In the era of COVID-19, many of the methods you use to alleviate stress may not be available to you — like getting together with friends to decompress or working out at the gym. Whether you are hoping to add tools to your existing wellness routine, or are exploring resources for the first time, you have options. Before getting into specific strategies, start with these important steps.
- First and foremost, give yourself a break. Your work is difficult, it is demanding, and you often witness what is unthinkable to most. It’s normal to feel the effects of stress and trauma, and those effects are not always the same for everyone.
- Recognize what you’re feeling. Identify the emotions: shock, anger, sadness, fear, relief, etc. These are normal responses, and it is okay to feel them, in any combination. Calling them what they are helps you gain perspective on how to address them.
- Identify the symptoms that are bothering you and pay attention to how they are impacting you daily. Talk to someone, professionally or using peer support.
- Explore resources and keep track of go-to coping strategies. Every step you take to manage stress and trauma puts you in a powerful position to improve and protect your mental health.
Resiliency Skills And Tools
- Identify your known sources of strength. Write down not just the ones that come to mind — family, friends, faith, pets, music and hobbies — but think about the things that bring you happiness and create strength.
- Social support is protective, so reclaim relationships. When you connect with others, you build resiliency. If you feel alone, even during those times when you feel like being alone, take a minute to call a friend or video-call a loved one.
- Reframe your thoughts in solution-oriented way. Ask yourself if you can change the problem at hand, and if so, how? If not, how can you accept it?
- Envision positive outcomes. This may seem simplistic, but resiliency is built in part on positivity. It’s not “touchy-feely,” but rather, fostering optimism and envisioning positive outcomes to improve your outlook.
- Express gratitude. Each day identify something you are thankful for — and why.
- How many firemen does it take to….use humor to cope? All first responders understand that humor is a coping mechanism, but you should also know that it has healthy short and long-term benefits. Listen to a stand-up routine, tell corny jokes with your kids, or watch a comedy. Rediscover the things that make you laugh.
- Set the tone for each day. Take charge of the day from the outset with a healthy and positive habit. It can be five minutes of mindful meditation or prayer, ten minutes of stretching or even just a few minutes to focus on your goals for the day.
- Limit your media exposure and the amount of time spent on social media to maintain a positive outlook. Continual review of negative stories and outcomes can increase your stress.
- Create a list of tips and resources that you’ve tried and categorize them — what worked well, what you’re willing to try, what didn’t work for you, etc. Experiment with new approaches.
- Create a list of strategies for taking care of yourself throughout your shift. You don’t have to be off duty to use stress management skills. Often, even the simplest thing such as tactical or box breathing, or stepping outside for a break, can make the day less stressful.
It goes without saying that physical health and mental health are intricately linked. You already know that you should be eating healthy, exercising and making a concerted effort to get quality sleep. This is not an easy task for public safety professionals, and the negative impacts related to shiftwork make it even harder.
Try these tips and resources:
- Tips for healthy habits when working shifts.
- Healthy nutrition suggestions for shift workers.
- Keep up with your diet and exercise and track nutritional needs.
- Consider approaches to fitness that are outside of what you are used to. Things like yoga that are designed especially for first responders, or brief but targeted workouts.
- Most people carry tension and pain in their shoulders and neck. Simple stretches can help with that. Take breaks during your shift to do some stretching and deep breathing.
- Make sure that you are getting good sleep with good sleep patterns.