Reliving Trauma in Social Situations: How First Responders Can Cope

Reliving Trauma in Social Situations: How First Responders Can Cope

Published on August 19, 2020 by First Responder Wellness

First responders enter into life-and-death situations on a daily basis. Between rushing into burning buildings, arriving at traffic collisions, and speaking with those in crisis, the proximity to risk is constant. For many first responders, this is commonplace. Some cope well with their fast-paced and often dangerous work environment. However, when social situations trigger the memories of traumatic events, things can start to get rocky.

Society’s Perception of First Responders

From early on in our development, society teaches us to appreciate first responders. Children in elementary school grow up idolizing firefighters, doctors, and police officers as their heroes. Naturally, the perception of these occupations changes with age, but a small part of the adult psyche is prone to mirroring the world view we held as a child — perhaps due to the influence of nostalgia or subconscious impulse.

As adults, viewing the societal roles of first responders as folklorish saviors can interfere with our empathy and ability to view them as people. Most first responders can attest to being asked highly personal questions about their jobs when they are off-duty. This is likely a by-product of having what many deem to be an “exciting job.” At first, these questions can be great fun: “How heavy is the firefighter suit?” or “What’s the craziest thing you have ever seen?” or “Have you ever been on a high-speed chase?” and so forth.

Yet after years of answering questions like these, it can stop feeling like the attention makes you the life of the party and more like people are just fishing for answers to validate how they have always imagined a first responder’s job would be. It may come as a disappointment to these inquiring minds, but asking a first responder to recall their closest calls might be a very unhealthy way for them to discuss their trauma.

Doing so glorifies the experience without offering any degree of empathy to the person who actually experienced it. Being prompted to relive traumatic events can trigger severe anxieties — which, for those dealing with alcohol and/or substance abuse, may lead to addictive tendencies.

Toughing It Out Does Greater Damage

For first responders, admitting how uncomfortable these interactions can feel collides with the stereotype of gritty heroes who are ready for anything. At the end of the day, we are all human, and as such, we can only shoulder a limited amount of emotional and psychological weight before seeking a release from the stress.

While building up one’s emotional endurance can help first responders survive life-threatening situations, the strategy isn’t particularly suited for long-lasting mental wellness. As many first responder work environments shift their culture to accommodate the mental health of employees, much of the social stigma surrounding these industries has got to catch up.

The portrayal of first responders in popular entertainment erases the mental toll that can accumulate over years of traumatic experiences. Firefighters in particular have a suicide rate that is approximately ten times higher than other professions. If you have never worked as a first responder, try to be conscientious of the diligent work required to heal traumatic memories.

Let Others Know Your Feelings

So, how do first responders handle these interactions when they are dealing with post-traumatic stress? Responding to someone’s genuine curiosity about your profession with emotional boundaries can feel uncomfortable. It’s also important to maintain compassion for those who may not initially consider the effect of their questions or realize they are bringing up deep-seated trauma.

If possible, viewing these instances as opportunities to educate uninformed individuals may benefit another first responder’s mental health down the road. Through shifting the conversation to the topic of mental health awareness, the experience of reliving trauma may be avoided and both parties might be able to find common ground.

Still, having a conversation about mental health can be uncomfortable in a social setting. Prefacing the topic of trauma with a heads-up to those involved in the conversation will allow anyone who may have triggers to voice their concern. This also establishes a common ground of understanding within the context of friendly discussion.

If at any point the conversation becomes unsettling for your mental health, remember that it’s okay to let the other person know you are feeling uncomfortable before removing yourself from the situation. Ultimately, your mental health takes precedence over the opportunity to spread awareness of the trauma that first responders often carry with them. Prioritizing your needs is essential to remaining stable enough to help others.

For first responders, living with trauma and/or anxiety disorders can feel like a second full-time job. You often deal with dangerous and life-threatening situations that can cause a great deal of emotional stress over time and amplify anxious feelings. Searching for temporary relief can quickly escalate into dependency or other unhealthy habits. In an effort to cope, some may turn to compulsive spending, overeating or undereating, drinking excessively, taking too many prescription or over-the-counter drugs, or using other substances. True Recovery is here to help you manage anxiety and navigate the complex relationship between mental health and wellness. Our First Responder Wellness program can help you or a loved one develop new strategies for healthy living and begin living an addiction-free life. We are available to you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Call us now at (888) 743-0490.