First Responders and Panic Attacks

First Responders and Panic Attacks

Published on September 11, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

Anyone who lives through a traumatic experience can be triggered into an onset of panic. Any veteran firefighter, EMT, or law enforcement officer has likely assisted someone going through a panic attack — probably many people. Yet, regardless of their experience, first responders themselves can also be prone to experiencing panic.

These episodes may not occur for weeks, months, or even years following the traumatic experience. A panic attack often leaves individuals feeling especially weak or vulnerable. First responders who have become particularly dependent on alcohol and/or substance use are at an increased risk of abusing these self-medicating habits.

With the hope of escaping the feelings of anxiety and hopelessness associated with panic attacks, addictive habits might seem like a quick fix. However, the use of alcohol and/or substances buries the underlying causes for the panic attack, rather than effectively working through them.

After recovering from a panic attack, some may be quick to dismiss the incident. Moving on from a panic attack — or failing to recognize that a panic attack has even occurred — is a common occurrence, as the experience may register as a heightened state of fear and/or anger.

At the onset of a panic attack, some report feeling shame or increased anxiety that confiding in others about their experience will result in being judged as a hypochondriac. Knowing the symptoms of panic attacks and various options for treatment can prevent triggers for addiction and further health complications.

What Does a Panic Attack Feel Like?

When panic attacks begin, they are marked by increased feelings of stress and anxiety. An overall sense of unease or discomfort builds in intensity as a panic attack ramps up. Early symptoms may include sweating, chest pain, and shaking. Many experience paralyzing thoughts, which linger despite any attempts to rationalize their legitimacy.

Usually, around ten minutes into a panic attack, the episode begins to peak, exhibiting a variety of chills, numbness, and even the sensation of choking. Most first responders are familiar with these symptoms, as many have assisted people experiencing panic attacks in their line of work.

With the ability to assist others in these moments of crisis, it should seem easier for first responders to identify their own panic attacks. But the work culture of many first responder departments contributes to unhealthy exercises in toughness — also referred to as toxic suffering.

Despite feeling the same symptoms as the people they help on a daily basis, many first responders will suppress the experience of panic within their own lives.

A Tale of Two Attacks

There are two types of panic attacks one can experience: voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary panic attacks can be triggered through obsessive and/or unhealthy thought patterns. Fixating on fearful concepts sends the mind spiraling until the “fight, flight, or freeze” response triggers multiple reactions within the body.

The production of adrenaline throws fuel onto the burning fire of panic. Before long, these self-manufactured thoughts snowball into a debilitating sequence of intensified physical and mental reactions. Involuntary panic attacks, which are less common, can be brought on by incomprehensibly large stressors.

As the mind attempts to wrap around the enormity of incoming stress, the body anticipates taking it on with the physical reaction of a panic attack. These experiences are fairly rare, as they hinge upon the brain immediately projecting the implications of a stressful event, which is not typically how the mind processes stress.

Some involuntary panic attacks result from underlying medical conditions, such as high blood pressure, overactive thyroid, sleep disorders, and/or many other conditions.

Respond To Panic Attacks Without Alcohol and/or Substance Use

Following a panic attack, the mind and body tend to experience high levels of exhaustion. In many ways, the effects of a panic, although very intense, are not inherently unhealthy. Given the relatively short duration of panic attacks — anywhere from 10 to 25 minutes — the cycle of this sympathetic nervous system response is a regular function of the human body, despite the fact that it may be occurring at an inopportune moment in time. It is, first and foremost, important to acknowledge that a panic attack is taking place. Once recognized, there are many options for healthy response which do not include using alcohol and/or substances. Focusing on breathing, reminding yourself this feeling will pass, directing your vision towards a still object — all of these strategies can help to reduce overwhelming feelings of anxiety. Panic attacks can be jarring, and if left unrecognized, can heighten paranoia of the surrounding world. However, for first responders who admit their panic attacks, seeking treatment can increase their ability to prioritize their mental health and avoid relapse.

Whether you live alone, with family, or with friends, panic attacks can shake the confidence we have in our own stability. The onset of panic might humble the courage that first responders are called upon to exhibit on a daily basis. Working through the unknowns of anxiety is a scary undertaking, but you don’t have to do it alone. At First Responder Wellness, our team is dedicated to helping first responders who struggle with anxiety, addiction, and other disorders. To give you the best possible chance at achieving long-term wellness, we utilize an effective blend of treatments that address mental health. If you’re a first responder struggling with alcohol and/or substance use, or if an anxiety disorder has impacted your life, First Responder Wellness is here for you. To learn more, please contact our staff 24/7 or call True Recovery at (888) 743-0490.