Silhouette of a firefighter fighting flames.

Firefighters, like all warriors, are constantly exposed to traumatic events that can develop into PTSD. Studies indicate that as many as 37% of firefighters may experience some form of post-traumatic stress.

How do firefighters get PTSD?

Post traumatic stress can be caused by one significant occurrence, or a series of multiple events. These include running into burning buildings, fatal car wrecks, responding to attempted or completed suicides, children’s death or serious injury, or losing a brother in the line of duty. Critical incidences are subjective, and can affect different people in different ways, based on their life experiences.

The event can be considered big, such as a child’s death, a major fire, or something else completely. The event can also be a small incident or a series of incidents that occur over time. It just takes one occurrence to trigger a negative mental reaction.

Supervisors and those who begin firefighting at a young age are at greater risk of post traumatic stress. Those who endure multiple traumatic events in short succession also are at greater risk to experience some signs of PTSD.

Trauma can Lead to Substance Abuse and Addiction

The stress firefighters deal with daily can be difficult to tackle alone. Many of those suffering with post-traumatic stress or high work-related pressure turn to alcohol, prescription drugs, or other substances. Using these substances as a coping mechanism can lead to serious addiction in a short amount of time.

Personal Attachment Makes Trauma More Difficult.

As most firefighters work in the communities where they live, seeing a familiar face, a neighbor, or even a loved one in peril or anguish adds a new level of difficulty to an already difficult job. Firefighters have strong roots planted in their communities, and ensuring its safety can feel like an extra job in itself.

Although dealing with danger is part of the job, trying to remain emotionally strong when something has deeply affected you can be difficult, if not impossible.

Firefighters and first responders are tough, but everyone needs help at some point.

Tackling the Tough Guy Attitude

Firefighters and first responders are tough, but everyone needs help at some point. Remaining strong for your friends and family is one thing, but being able to admit when something is wrong can be incredibly difficult.

The trauma encountered on the job affects everyone differently. Some may avoid the devastation of PTSD, while others are unable to shake traumatic experiences. However, this should never be seen as weakness.

There’s a tough guy stigma that comes with the job that might attempt to hide emotional distress. Firefighters are extremely skilled in remaining calm and focused so they can keep themselves and others safe. All of this training is designed to handle dangerous situations as they happen, but not for dealing with emotions when the critical situation is over.

Alienation can result from feeling unable to discuss feelings about a critical event with your peers. You may think it’ll fall on deaf ears, or that you’ll be considered weak for saying a traumatic experience impacted you.

Being human and allowing for time to cope with a particularly rough experience does not indicate weakness. If you feel like you have no one to turn to at work or at home, don’t hesitate to call for support.

PTSD Symptoms in Firefighters

The following are only some of the indicators associated with post traumatic stress in firefighters.

Erratic Mood Changes and Substance Abuse

Marked and irregular changes in mood accompany PTSD. Though typically depression is the expected emotional state, mood changes can also include:

  • Severe depression and/or inability to feel positive emotions
  • Alcoholism
  • Prescription and/or illicit drug abuse
  • Changes in work behavior
  • Constant self-blame regarding the traumatic event

Altered Reactions

Post-traumatic stress can leave a feeling that you always need to be alert and ready, exhausting the body and the mind. Symptoms include:

  • Ever-present alertness
  • Hypervigilance (a state in which you are constantly searching to neutralize threats, even when none are present)
  • Irritability and/or hostility
  • Anxiety, which leads to exhaustion
  • Exaggerated responsiveness

Avoidance

Depending on the situation, post traumatic stress can come without warning. This causes many firefighters to avoid stimuli that may trigger a negative response, including avoiding:

  • External reminders, such as places, activities, or even smells.
  • Discussions or thoughts regarding the event

PTSD sufferers may also choose to isolate themselves from others, as a form of protection.

Rumination

Rumination includes regularly reliving a traumatic event – whether the reliving is voluntary or involuntary. This can include:

  • Flashbacks that occur regarding the critical event
  • Nightmares about the event or aspects of the situation
  • Repeatedly asking “why” and “how” questions about the situation. (Example: How could’ve I prevented this?)

I believe this place to be life saving.

– Dallas, Firefighter

How Warriors Heart can Help

At Warriors Heart, we do our best to create an environment where Warriors of all walks of life can find healing. Here, our brotherhood of first responders heal together and bolster each other up. Our treatment program covers the healing of the whole person, including PTSD, and all co-occurring struggles with substance abuse, addiction, anger issues, and depression.

If you, a loved one, friend, or coworker is experiencing symptoms of PTSD, reach out for help immediately. Sometimes all it takes is someone to empathize with. Sometimes it takes more.

If you need help or want to help:

  • Be there for your brothers and sisters as someone to confide in. Don’t make someone who already might be feeling alone feel even more isolated.
  • Know the symptoms of PTSD. If you see something, say something.
  • Stop the stigma that emotional reactions indicate weakness.
  • Create a network that’s open and caring. Know that you’re not alone.
  • Eat better and avoid alcohol. Eating healthy nourishes your body. Alcohol only exacerbates depressive feelings.
  • Seek treatment if you’re experiencing any PTSD symptoms.
  • Reflect. Debrief with those you trust. This concept is used by the military as an After Action Report to review traumatic experiences.

Firefighters are victims of PTSD in the same concentrations as police officers, emergency medical technicians, and soldiers. Don’t allow the trauma experienced on the clock create scars across the rest of your life. Support is out there for all warriors.

Find A Brotherhood of Healing At Warriors Heart.
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(844) 448-2567