If I’ve been sober for years, why do I still think about using substances?

If I’ve been sober for years, why do I still think about using substances?

Many first responders and even civilians successfully living in recovery still think about substance use from time to time. 

At some point in your journey through recovery and sobriety, you may have asked yourself, “If I’ve been sober for years, why do I still think about using substances?”

Do not worry. You’re not alone. This is a thought that most first responders in recovery experience on occasion. 

The high-stress environment and pressures of a first responder can make sobriety even more difficult than that of civilians. As you know, first responders are subject to experience more trauma than many other professions, and tough shifts or tragic experiences can easily weigh a person down. 

Maintaining sobriety can be challenging for those who are used to selflessly putting the lives and safety of others first. But, the KEY is to understand why we still think about using and how to handle the thoughts when they occur.

Don’t give thoughts power

You go through a string of six great months in recovery, you’re on track and thriving…then suddenly one day, unexpectedly, you think or even daydream about substances. Remember, these are just thoughts, do not give them power.

Unsettling thoughts of relapse often disrupt any sense of contentment built up over long bouts of sobriety. Everyone in recovery is familiar with thoughts of relapse, and thinking of it doesn’t make a person any more or less principled in their pursuit of recovery; it makes them human.

Another key distinction here lies in the understanding that thoughts of relapse do not determine relapse. If a person begins going down a path of negative thinking, there’s still time to consider the control held over their thoughts. Taking a moment to understand that thoughts of relapse are disconnected from actions can provide us with a sense of power.

Although it may be difficult to control the thoughts crossing our minds at all times, our power comes from choosing not to listen to the negative thoughts.

Risk and reward response

Often, the mind treats alcohol and substance use as a reward, especially for addicts. Chemically, the brain floods with neurotransmitters, hijacking the regulation of risk and reward responses, which allows all other positive experiences to seem inadequate in comparison to using.

On a neurological level, addicted individuals subconsciously count the seconds until the next opportunity to experience that reward. This is the reason long bouts of sobriety can flip in an instant, with the mind reverting to cravings of the past when it seeks a reward.

Reestablishing the reward system can take many years; don’t worry. In the meantime, the brain consistently desires to realize the incentive of using; refusing this drive can be difficult, as the desire originates from a chemical dependency in the brain. Ignoring these urges is less a matter of willpower and more about managing the craving to use when it arises.

Handling thoughts of relapse

If thoughts of relapse emerge, they usually surface alongside unhealthy thought patterns, many of which may seem familiar from the helm of addiction. Commonly referred to as “stinking thinking” by those who have graduated from treatment programs, the re-emergence of self-destructive thoughts signals the underlying desire to relapse. Once a person can recognize the signs of relapse, what does a person do with these corrosive thoughts?

If kept inside, they will eat away at the individual in recovery, pushing them closer to relapse. Speaking with a sponsor, trained counselors, or loved ones goes a long way in relieving the pressure created by these thoughts. If that is not an option, writing these thoughts and feelings down may alleviate some emotional and psychological burdens.

Mindful meditation is another healthy coping mechanism for thoughts of relapse, as it assists in identifying negative thought patterns and redirects the mind to think positively.

Thoughts of relapse are difficult to manage, but they point to underlying issues that could go unnoticed. As tough as they can feel, these thoughts are extensions of yourself; they require love and attention. Listening to them and learning from them is another step on the road to recovery.

About First Responder Wellness

At First Responder Wellness, we guide those ready to take the path to recovery and wellbeing. We offer various programs within a community of others who know what it is like to be in the front lines. For more information on how we can assist you, call 888-443-4898. 

Caring for plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress

Caring for plants can reduce physiological and psychological stress

Did you know that caring for houseplants has the power to reduce physiological and psychological stress?

This may be good news for all plant enthusiasts out there or encouragement to a first responder looking to beautify their home or garden while enhancing mental and emotional health. 

“Researchers conducted a study on “how the interaction with indoor plants may reduce stress by suppressing autonomic nervous system activity in adults. The research-study results concluded that active interaction with indoor plants can reduce both physiological and psychological stress; this is accomplished through suppression of sympathetic nervous system activity, diastolic blood pressure, and promotion of comfortable, natural feelings.”

Affinity Health

When a plant owner tends to their houseplant(s), all of their attention is focused on the plant and only the plant. 

Caring for a living being is second nature for first responders, so taking the time to water, trim, and rotate plants can be a very therapeutic process that relaxes your senses while your sole focus is on the plant. 

While there are so many science-backed benefits of houseplants, the amount of mental wellness opportunity they provide to the lives of humans is unparalleled. 

Here are the top five benefits plants have on mental health:

  • Plants can reduce feelings of depression, anxiety, and anxiousness
  • Houseplants can elevate productivity and boost creativity
  • Improve the quality of indoor air
  • Sharpen concentration and memory 

As many of you already understand, oftentimes, a reduced level of serotonin is linked to depression, which is why surrounding yourself with a few indoor plants is a solid test to undertake as plants can help trigger the same chemical response in our brain which releases serotonin. 

“A 2007 study found a bacterium in plant soil called Mycobacterium vaccae that triggers the release of serotonin, which lifts mood and reduces anxiety. Therefore, interaction with indoor or outdoor plants can alleviate symptoms of depression.”

Affinity Health

Plants provide a sense of calming energy, which can translate to a stronger sense of wellbeing. With all the data and evidence supporting houseplant’s impact on mental health, we recommend you try this tactic and see if it works for you. 

At First Responder Wellness, we guide those ready to take the path to recovery and wellbeing. We offer various programs within a community of others who know what it is like to be in the front lines. For more information on how we can assist you, call 888-443-4898. 

Navigate through compassion fatigue with these coping mechanisms

Navigate through compassion fatigue with these coping mechanisms

Did you know compassion fatigue is real? Well, it is, and it negatively impacts millions of first responders every year. 

Although this detriment is not typically life-threatening, it can be quite debilitating, just like any other mental health implication. 

Constantly being inserted into the line of duty, you are prone to exhaust compassion every single shift from serving the public and constantly putting the distressful needs of others before yours. 

Over time compassion fatigue can take a toll on a first responder and lead to emotional exhaustion. The exhaustion experienced results from high emotional involvement, such as working with traumatized individuals in the community without the mental support they deserve. 

First responders must be able to identify the symptoms of compassion fatigue for themselves and their colleagues. Getting ahead of the symptoms and finding ways to cope with compassion fatigue early on will save an elevated amount of distress in the long run. 

Some emotional symptoms you may be experiencing from compassion fatigue include: 

  • Feeling helpless and/or overwhelmed
  • Angry, irritable, and elevated anxiety
  • A reduced amount of empathy
  • Feeling insensitive or hypersensitive
  • Decreased tolerance for stress

Understanding and having the ability to pinpoint when your compassion is burnt out is a vital step towards a more positive mental health and overall wellness for first responders.

There are many tactics and coping mechanisms that you can start implementing into your life today if you’d like to counteract compassion fatigue. Some of these wellness tactics include: 

  • Having a balanced diet
  • Garnering regular exercise 
  • Adequate amount of sleep and rest
  • Taking deserved time off (use that PTO)
  • Setting emotional boundaries
  • Practicing mindful meditation and deep breathing
  • Strengthening social support from loved ones, friends, and colleagues

“SAMSHA recommends focusing on “four core components of resilience: adequate sleep, good nutrition, regular physical activity, and active relaxation. Unfortunately, many first responders are unaware of this kind of resiliency training and attempt to deal with their PTSD and compassion fatigue with self-medicating substances, most often alcohol.”

Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration 

Strengthening our mental wellbeing is an ongoing initiative in life. Our team at First Responder Wellness will continue shedding light on and providing first responders in our network and beyond valuable tips to make progress towards greater mental health. 

At First Responder Wellness, we guide those ready to take the path to recovery and wellbeing. We offer various programs within a community of others who know what it is like to be in the front lines. For more information on how we can assist you, call (888) 743-0490.

How first responders can navigate through survivor’s guilt

How first responders can navigate through survivor’s guilt

Survivor’s guilt is a difficult emotion to navigate through, especially for first responders, because they’re more inclined to experience a heightened amount of traumatic events compared to the general population. 

Feeling lucky to be alive is an emotion many of us might not associate with guilt. Some may not even realize they are experiencing it, or they struggle to recognize that the weight they are carrying alongside their grief is actually a sense of guilt. 

This feeling can manifest itself after a person experiences a loss or a traumatic event that develops post-traumatic stress injury (PTSI). This person may feel a sense of responsibility and are grappling with questions like, “Why did this happen? What could I have done differently? Why did I survive when others did not?” These inner questions can weigh incredibly heavy on a person who feels like they could’ve done something different to change or prevent the outcome.

When there’s an emergency, first responders are the ones heading to the action, actively trying to prevent the loss of life or a traumatic outcome. As you know, this puts them at a disproportionate risk of witnessing or being involved in situations that evoke these emotions. 

Survivor’s guilt takes the form of a military veteran wishing they could have done something more to save a fallen soldier or a firefighter feeling guilty about not being able to save a life while risking their own in the blaze of fire; these are just a couple of many examples of survivors guilt first responders are susceptible to. 

“The guilt of being alive after someone has died can create a sense of failure and loss of purpose, or drive someone to use substances as a means of coping. Learning to deal with survivor guilt and shame in a healthy way can help bring some healing and positive feelings to a first responder’s work and personal life.”

Strive Cares

With this challenging emotion ever so present in the lives of all first responders, it’s essential to understand the signs, symptoms and know how to turn your pain into power. 

Survivor’s guilt is complicated

Sometimes the mess of emotions that ensues after surviving a traumatic experience can be difficult to untangle and manage. Navigating through the various stages of grief while also struggling with survivor’s guilt can bring on complex emotions that feel overwhelming. Identifying what you’re feeling can help untangle these strands of emotions and allow you to start coping with them individually instead of trying to deal with them all at once.  

Once a person has identified what they’re feeling may be survivor’s guilt, coping with it can be just as complex. The nature of this emotion can often bring about thoughts that they did not deserve to survive when someone else did not. 

This can also translate to feelings that they do not deserve to receive help and live a happy, healthy life afterward when others cannot; this person may feel unworthy of experiencing relief. Keeping themselves in pain may make them feel like it makes up for the fact they survived when others did not, as if they owe the world something, and if they were to feel happy, it would be disrespectful. 

However, when people are stuck in this feeling of guilt, they may not realize that staying in this state of mind can be detrimental to their overall health. Everyone deserves an opportunity to live a happy, healthy life. 

Be aware of the signs

Some signs that indicate a person may be struggling with survivor’s guilt is if they’re expressing any of the following thoughts or making these comments after a traumatic event:

  • “I don’t deserve help when someone else needs it more than me.”
  • “I keep thinking if only I had…”
  • “I feel like there was more I could have done.” 
  • “I should have…”
  • “Why was I the one that survived?”
  • “I’m so angry at myself for not trying harder.” 
  • “How can I be happy when all those others who died cannot?”
  • “Why should I enjoy life experiences when they can’t?”

Symptoms first responders experience 

On top of having these thoughts, symptoms of survivor’s guilt can vary. Each individual may experience them differently and to varying degrees depending on the person and situation. Some indications a person may be experiencing survivor’s guilt fall similarly under many PTSI symptoms:

  • Flashbacks
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • A sense of hopelessness 
  • An intense feeling of fear
  • Stomachaches, headaches, and palpitations
  • A sense of unworthiness
  • Suicidal thoughts 

Let’s turn your pain into power 

There’s power in reimagining your pain. Showing some compassion to yourself instead of being overly critical of a situation you did not have complete control over can help you look at the traumatic event from a clearer perspective. 

For every thought or question that begins with why or how, answer it with a more compassionate response. You’re not to blame, so you should not have to bear the guilt or shame. Therefore, saying “I should have done something more” and flipping it to “I did the best I could” will provide some relief. 

Other coping tips that can be helpful to first responders include:

  • Think how the people who love you feel about your survival
  • Give yourself time to grieve
  • Talk with trusted loved ones about your feelings
  • Do something meaningful for someone
  • Practice self-care
  • Seek professional help

At First Responder Wellness, we share your desire to help others; we’re here to help you. If you or a loved one is showing signs of post-traumatic stress or survivor’s guilt, reach out to us at (888) 743-0490.

Alleviate stress by deep breathing with the Headspace or Calm app

Alleviate stress by deep breathing with the Headspace or Calm app

Many people around the world benefit from mindful meditation, and so many others would like to meditate but don’t know how. No worries, your theories about the act of meditation may seem complicated, but it’s not complicated at all. 

As you may already know, mindful meditation is just the act of practicing mindfulness, which focuses on sensing your surroundings and feelings while deep breathing. 

One myth about mindful meditation is that it takes too much time to complete, which is far from the truth. Please note, deep breathing and mindful meditation can be accomplished in as little as one minute per day, but a preferred amount of time is about five to 20 minutes per session. 

When meditating, you do not have to be sitting on the floor with your legs crossed (as is typically depicted in meditation practices); you can be anywhere. What is great about mindful meditation, along with deep breathing, is that you can practice it at your desk, in the car while sitting in traffic, in the shower, on vacation, and literally anywhere you’d like. 

The deep breathing component of mindful meditation can be achieved by simply taking five deep breaths, which takes around one minute to complete. 

On average, the ideal pace of a deep breathing exercise is inhaling for five seconds, exhaling for five seconds; you can also hold each inhale for two seconds between exhaling to strengthen the exercise. 

Practicing mindful meditation by consciously being aware of thoughts and sensing your surroundings while practicing deep breathing can alleviate anxiety, reduce depression, anxiousness, insomnia, lower blood pressure, and heart rate. 

“If you have battled depression in your life, mindful meditation could be an inexpensive, natural and easy way to help. Over four months, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy patients said that it was more or just as helpful as antidepressants or counseling for depression. While 75 percent of the patients in the study who were on antidepressants were able to come off of them after 15 months of follow-up.”

Dr. Shelly Sethi, Personalized Medicine 

For those interested in giving mindful meditation a go, we have a couple of app recommendations, including Headspace and Calm; either of the two are great choices to get you started today. 


The Headspace app is free to download, while Headspace Plus is $12.99 per month and comes with an array of services at your fingertips. This app comes with the ability to sift through hundreds of meditations, sleep casts, energizing workouts, and music playlists to find focus. Every day you can be reminded to meditate and enjoy one minute or up to one hour of practices guided by one of its three meditation experts. 

For those who may be stressed out about the future, a forthcoming event, or fear of the unknown, there is a section called “Fear of the Future.” This section provides the user with tools to not allow worrying to consume your daily life. 

No matter what you may be dealing with or experiencing, we’re confident Headspace has a section tailored to your current needs. 


Similar to Headspace, Calm is another guided meditation app that can bring calmness into your life. You can try the app for free or upgrade to its premium for $14.99 per month to improve sleep quality, reduce stress or anxiety, improve focus, and gain self-improvement. 

According to the platform, 84 percent of Calm users who used the app five times a week saw improved mental health. What’s great about this app is that the user undergoes a questionnaire, and the platform will recommend the best meditation practices for you to strengthen your mentality and reduce stress. 

Before signing up for a monthly membership, we recommend starting with either of the app’s free trials to determine if it’s for you. We’re excited to have you learn the basics of meditation and understand how mindful activity can be achieved by just taking five cleansing breaths a day!

Strengthen confidence and self-esteem with these 10 tips

Strengthen confidence and self-esteem with these 10 tips

Strengthening self-esteem and confidence in sobriety serves as the footprint to continued wellness in recovery. When we are confident, we feel as if we can do anything. When our self-esteem is at an adequate level or higher, we believe we deserve the best. 

But, when a person is in recovery and has not tackled how to build self-esteem and confidence, he or she is more likely to revert to abusing substances; due to the lack of a solid inner foundation. 

Finding inner self-esteem and confidence is sometimes easier said than done. If this doesn’t come naturally as a first responder, it can be taxing to constantly feel the pressure and need to portray confidence outwardly to those around you. 

Due to the pressures, some may turn to substance abuse to give them a sense of confidence, even if it’s false and short-lived. Alcohol tends to give people certain confidence they usually would not have, but this is because it lowers one’s inhibitions rather than providing a true sense of confidence and self-esteem. 

Those who suffer from substance abuse and low self-esteem may struggle to find happiness and self-worth away from their addiction, but it can be done. When an individual decides to get sober, it’s imperative that they also strengthen their self-esteem and build their confidence in healthy and practical ways. This is to help ensure they don’t feel the need to turn to substances again.

Here is a list of experiences that may contribute to low self-esteem

  • Emotional or physical abuse
  • Being ignored, ridiculed, teased
  • Facing harsh criticism 
  • Expectations to be perfect

Now, here are some tips on how you can develop high self-esteem

  • Being treated respectfully
  • Being listened to
  • Having achievements recognized
  • Acceptance of mistakes

Building confidence, paired with strengthening self-esteem, is a winning combination to lead a life of continued sobriety. Please remember, building confidence will not happen overnight, or even in a month. It’s something we have to practice every day by redirecting our thoughts and focusing on the positive. 

Below is a list of 6 tips you can use to build your confidence:

Practice using positive affirmations – At first, you may find that this feels forced and that you don’t believe your own words. Choosing one or two positive affirmations, writing them down, or reading them aloud every day can help build confidence. If we say to ourselves every day, “I deserve respect and happiness,” or “I am strong and capable,” we will begin to believe it.   

Recognize and challenge negative thoughts – Identifying negative thoughts and changing those thought patterns is essential for staying sober. See how your mind naturally gravitates towards specific thoughts and try looking at them from a different, more positive perspective. By changing “I can’t do this” to “I can try my best,” we can start to climb out of this negative rut we’ve dug ourselves into. 

Keep a journal – Seeing our thoughts, worries, and wishes on paper can help us view our mind from a more distant—and somewhat more objective—a perspective where we can recognize unhealthy patterns and work toward changing them. 

Surround yourself with uplifting people – Confidence and self-esteem must come from within to succeed in staying sober; having supportive people around you is also important. Reach out to people you look up to and respect for support while also learning to let unhealthy, negative relationships go; this may help you see the good in yourself.

Focus on success instead of failures – It is easy to get tripped up over a failure, and while these are important to learn from, it’s unhealthy to lament over them for a long time. If we focus on each small success, we can appreciate them more when they occur.

Take responsibility – Take responsibility for cultivating your self-esteem and happiness, as these are things that come from within. Make an active decision each day to put in the work it takes to become a more confident, self-loving, and sober person until it becomes a natural habit.

Remember, once an individual decides to get sober, addressing issues with self-esteem is essential. Having low self-esteem in recovery can affect one’s ability to find happiness. Nonetheless, building confidence and self-esteem can be done; we believe in you.