How Do Trauma and Addiction Go Unnoticed in First Responders?

How Do Trauma and Addiction Go Unnoticed in First Responders?

Published on August 10, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

The effects of trauma coupled with alcohol and/or substance use disorder present themselves in several ways — if you are trained to look for them. Still, for first responders dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction, there are many reasons why these underlying disorders go unnoticed.

Under Pressure

First responders are asked to do more and more with each passing year, usually without the financial assurance of a pay raise, all of which adds additional stress to an already stressful job. Given the high-pressure situations faced in the line of duty, many of the anxieties felt by first responders end up being attributed to occupational hazard.

Constantly feeling stress from one’s workplace often creates a mental landscape overgrown with anxious feelings that are attributed to the job, making it increasingly difficult to separate the origins of unhealthy behavior.Without minimizing the difficulties that first responders face daily — as their dedication to civil service protects the basic rights our societies are built upon — it is important to note that those who dedicate themselves to helping others can struggle to take care of their own needs as a result.

The underlying personality of first responders drives individuals to shoulder significant emotional and psychological weight. Sometimes this weight is too heavy, exposing a weakness within the psyche of the first responder. The natural reaction to conceal this weakness is second nature, leaving trauma and addiction to lurk in seemingly well-adjusted hosts.

Culture of Emotional Suppression

The stigma surrounding many first responder workplaces discourages many from speaking up about the difficulties they face. A pervasive work culture of self-reliance and ego-driven endurance — “We save others, we don’t need saving ourselves” — ultimately isolates first responders from the feelings of empathy and vulnerability that are necessary to process complex feelings and emotions, leading to widespread trauma and chemical dependency.

Many first responders who begin to notice a shift in their tendencies often suppress these observations in order to be tough for a job, or more accurately, for the people who are depending on them. This narrative betrays the first responder’s ability to heal before going back out to help others.

The classic anecdote about the parent who must apply their own oxygen mask in order to save the life of their child holds true here as well. Although admirable, first responders need to transcend the surrounding work culture that pushes them to suffer through their feelings so others can rely on them.

Signs of Underlying Disorders

PTSD as well as alcohol and/or substance use disorder manifest through many different behavioral and psychological symptoms. While they share many recognizable symptoms — increased anxiety, difficulty sleeping, frequent mood swings — these two disorders can result in triggers for the other.

As first responders dealing with addiction and/or trauma live with the disorder(s), the shame felt for harboring unshared feelings can develop into recognizable behavioral patterns. The inability to discuss one’s emotional health at length is a huge indicator that some form of emotional-cognitive disconnect has taken place. Being able to delve into the struggles, joys, and everything in-between that comes from first response work helps to alleviate stress.

Furthermore, rejecting help is a big red flag. If someone is closed off to the notion of talking with a counselor or opening up to a loved one about the mental strain of first response work, this may point to an inability to process difficult emotions or the possibility that emotional relief is coming from an external dependency, such as alcohol, substance use, gambling, pornography, or some other coping mechanism.

Advocating for Mental Health

Our hope for first responders dealing with trauma and/or addiction is that they can find healthy channels to direct their anxiety and stress. Realistically, many first responders feel they don’t have the time or energy to effectively understand the disorders plaguing their mental health. The first step to effectively prioritizing mental health is admitting that we all could stand to do a better job of listening to ourselves.

The urge to use alcohol and/or substances expresses a desire to treat ourselves for some underlying need. Usually, this is the desire to be understood — however, coping mechanisms differ depending on the distinct needs of each individual.

Many who suffer from these disorders are afraid of admitting they may be flawed and in need of help, particularly when they fill the role of “protector” and “savior” within society. Those with the greatest exposure to fear and suffering learn the strategies required to bypass feelings of fear and vulnerability. But when it comes to mental health, these feelings are absolutely essential to pave the way for recovery.

True Recovery’s First Responders Treatment Program is dedicated to meeting the needs of America’s first responders. Recognizing the sacrifices you make every day, our comprehensive treatment program is designed to serve and heal first responders who are battling addiction and trauma. Whether you’re struggling with alcohol dependence, drug dependence (such as prescription painkillers after an injury on the job), trauma, or a combination of these, True Recovery is here to help you overcome your dependency and get you back to optimal health and wellness. If you or a loved one are showing symptoms of trauma and/or addiction, we can help. We are available to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call us now at (888) 743-0490.