Coping Mechanisms for First Responders

International Stress Awareness Week: How Can I Identify Hidden Stress?

Published on November 10, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

What are some common signs that you or a loved one may be experiencing stress? How do you know when these levels of stress are becoming harmful? In honor of International Stress Week—November 2nd through the 6th—taking time to identify hidden stress in yourself and others can lead to better mental health and well-being all around. This awareness week was created to campaign against the stigma surrounding stress and mental health issues. This week is also intended to raise awareness about practical techniques for stress management and prevention. As first responders, it is imperative to be able to identify hidden stress not only in others but also in yourself. Only then will you be able to take the right measures to manage it.  

When in moderation, stress can be a helpful indicator in letting us know if something is off balance in us or if an event we are experiencing is dangerous and should require our focus and energy. Stress is a normal physical response that our bodies enact when we may feel threatened by something. Whether it is a real threat or not, when we feel this way, our body kicks on its defenses. Sometimes these defenses work too well and we may begin to experience an excess of stress responses which can lead to certain mental and physical effects.  

Though we are all unique, we are all human, and there are some common signs that may indicate you or a loved one is experiencing high levels of stress or trauma.

What are some common signs?

Difficulty thinking clearly

Stress can have a negative effect on one’s cognitive abilities. Here are some ways it may be manifesting itself in you or a loved one:

– Impairing your concentration, decision-making, and memory

– Causing disorientation or confusion

– Creating issues with problem-solving 

– Giving you trouble with remembering instructions

– Causing distortion and misinterpretation of events

– Giving you an inability to see situations clearly

Strong negative feelings

When we are under stress, it can have an impact on our moods and emotions, usually causing us to have a negative outlook. If you experience sudden shifts in moods or are quick to suddenly feel any of these, you may be under a high amount of stress. 

– Anger, frustration, argumentativeness, restlessness, and irritability 

– Deep sadness and difficulty maintaining emotional balance

Bodily sensations and physical effects 

Not only does stress have the ability to affect your mental state, but it can also lead to physical responses. When you become stressed, your sympathetic nervous system—which controls your body’s rapid involuntary responses—activates your fight-or-flight response. Your body prepares for this by pumping blood to your major muscle groups and increases tension in case you need to fight or flee. If you do not need to take action, though, your muscles will stay tense and can lead to aches and pains. Here are some physical responses that may be hidden signs of stress:

– Frequent headaches, clenching of the jaw, grinding of the teeth, the tension in the neck and shoulders, other muscle tension

– Rapid heart rate, palpitations

– Gastrointestinal problems, nausea, 

– Inability to relax when off work, trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, and nightmares

Problematic or risky behaviors 

As well as affecting our mood, stress can cause us to change our behavior in ways that may not be normal for us. If you find that you or a loved one is acting out in ways that are not usual, it may be a sign of stress.

– Unnecessary risk-taking, failure to use personal protective equipment 

– Refusal to follow orders or leave the scene, endangerment of others 

– Increased use or misuse of alcohol or prescription drugs

Social conflicts

When the effects of stress are severe enough, they may be causing you or a loved one to act in ways that are also putting others at risk, or causing you to have difficulty interacting with others. Here are some signs that you can look for: 

– Irritability, hostility, anger, and blaming 

– Reduced ability to support teammates

– Conflicts with peers or family

– Withdrawal and isolation  

How do I know when to seek help?

When you are used to being the one who helps others, it can be hard to know when you are the one in need of help. We are all human; we all experience stress. It is not a sign of weakness to deal with stress. Being able to identify it within yourself and take proper steps in managing it is a strength. For first responders, experiencing traumatic stress is a normal response to experiencing abnormal events. You may be experiencing these abnormal situations on a daily basis that the average person is not used to. Your physical and mental well-being may eventually take a toll on this. When stress interferes with or negatively impacts your daily life, job, relationships, or quality of life, it is important to take steps to manage it. 

Everybody experiences stress differently and it is heavily dependent on each individual. What one person might find stressful, another may not. Understanding how to identify hidden stressors is especially important within the first responder community. Many first responders can become accustomed to traumatic events, and over time, it may lead to gradual physical and emotional exhaustion of the mind and body. Its effects may go unnoticed until it starts having severe, negative impacts. This is why it is important to look for signs of hidden stress so that you can catch it early and learn to manage it in healthy ways. Feeling the effects of stress is normal. It is human. International Stress Awareness Week is a time to resist giving in to the stigma that stress and mental health issues are something to be ashamed of. Here at First Responders Wellness, we are here to help the helpers. To learn more about ways we can help, contact us at (888) 743-0490.