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The impacts of ongoing traumatic exposures

First responders may experience 200% more traumatic experiences than most people, but are they 200% more prepared to deal with them?

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Post-traumatic stress symptoms over time, untreated, can start to build on one another and increase in severity.

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It’s said that over half of individuals experience a potentially traumatic event over their lifetime. Consider what that might be for our first responders? I think it’s safe to assume 100% of them are exposed to such events, considering that their job involves responding to violent events, severe abuse, extreme traffic accidents, and dead bodies. It’s actually estimated that police officers experience approximately 3.5 traumatic events in a 6 month period (Patterson, 2001) throughout their entire career. If you multiply that by 30 years you get over 200. Not to mention just hearing about significantly traumatic events can also create post trauma symptoms. So this number might not account for all the information they gather through work talk, over the radio, or if they are involved in a peer support team or critical incident stress management team.

Symptoms of repeated exposure to trumatic events

  • Poor sleep quality

  • Higher alcohol abuse

  • More post trauma symptoms

WHAT ARE POST TRAUMA SYMPTOMS?

  • Re-experiencing the event (having undesirable and disturbing thoughts or memories that pop up, recurrent and distressing dreams)

  • Avoiding things that bring the memories up (conversations, sounds, smells, places)

  • Negative cognitions and and mood that began or increased following event

  • Hyperarrousal (sleep disturbance, trouble concentrating, high level of tension and alertness)

  • Irritability and angry outbursts with little or no provocation

Think about the fact that first responders might be exposed to over 3 significant events in a 6 month period. Depending on how these are spaced out, it may seem like they have some of these symptoms ongoing without much break. First responders and their family members might actually just adapt to some of these symptoms and see them as part of who they are.

WHEN HELP MAY BE INDICATED

Many people experience the symptoms listed above over the first few weeks after a traumatic event. This is part of the normal trauma response. If these symptoms last over a month or more for one specific event it can indicate more serious symptoms that may be best supported by a mental health professional. Especially if these symptoms seem to have negative impacts on their relationships with others, work performance, or other areas of daily life.

IMPACTS OF ONGOING POST TRAUMA SYMPTOMS

Our first responders might experience 200% more traumatic events than most people… are they 200% more prepared to deal with them? Not likely. It’s more likely that they have the same level of coping the rest of us do and have to figure it out for themselves when things hit harder. Symptoms over time, untreated, can start to build on one another and increase in severity. It has been shown that the more post trauma symptoms an individual has, the more likely they are to have…

  • Increased general health symptoms and conditions

  • Greater frequency and severity of pain

  • Cardio-respiratory and gastrointestinal complaints

  • Higher waking cortisol measures

  • Increased risk of suicide

WAYS TO COPE WITH ONGOING WORK STRESS

Would it benefit them to have better coping skills than non-emergency responders? Absolutely!! What might that look like?

  • A thoughtful routine that helps them transition into and out of their first responder role

  • Regular physical activity

  • Regular relaxation habits

  • Good sleep hygiene

  • Engagement in hobbies unrelated to work

  • Strong relationships with others, especially those outside of work

  • Having someone they feel they can talk to

  • Knowing when they need more help and getting it

We know that family members that live within the household of those displaying trauma symptoms may also experience greater worries and hypervigilance themselves. If you or your spouse have symptoms having a serious impact on you get help early! There’s help that is separate and confidential from your department if that’s been holding you back.

References

Hartley, T. A., Violanti, J. M., Sarkisian, K., Andrew, M. E., & Burchfiel, C. M. (2013). PTSD symptoms among police officers: associations with frequency, recency, and types of traumatic events. International journal of emergency mental health, 15(4), 241–253.

Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed clinical psychologist in California, specializing in work with first responder families. She serves as the strategic wellness director at Lexipol, supporting the content and strategy related to first responder mental health and wellness, with a special focus on supporting spouses and family members through the Cordico Wellness App. Prior to joining Lexipol, Zemlok founded First Responder Family Psychology, which provides culturally competent therapy to first responders and their family members. She is the author of “The Firefighter Family Academy: A Guide to Educate & Prepare Spouses for the Career Ahead.” For more information on Dr. Zemlok or to connect with her please visit her website.

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