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10 red flag phrases for first responders struggling with stress

Be alert to these phrases and ready to be empathetic and non-judgmental

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By Bill Carey

Firefighters, EMTs and paramedics often face high-stress situations that can have a significant impact on their mental health. It is important to recognize the signs of a fellow member in crisis and offer support. Here are some phrases a first responder struggling with stress might say, reflecting the various aspects of their experience:

  1. Feeling overwhelmed: “I can’t catch my breath” or “It feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders.”
  2. Feeling inadequate: “No matter what I do, it’s never enough” or “I feel like I’m always falling short.”
  3. Signs of emotional exhaustion or compassion fatigue: “I’m just so tired all the time, and it’s not just physical” or “I feel drained, like I have nothing left to give.”
  4. Indications of anxiety or hypervigilance: “I can’t stop thinking about the calls” or “I’m always on edge, waiting for the next disaster.”
  5. Feelings of isolation or being disconnected: “Nobody understands what I go through” or “I feel so alone, even in a crowded room.”
  6. Expressions of cynicism or disassociation: “What’s the point? Nothing really changes” or “I just don’t care anymore.”
  7. Signs of avoidance or withdrawal: “I don’t want to talk about work” or “I just want to be left alone.”
  8. Signs of irritability or anger: “Everything annoys me lately” or “I find myself snapping at people for no reason.”
  9. Feelings of sadness or despair: “I feel overwhelmed by sadness” or “I don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel.”
  10. Indications of guilt: “I should have done more” or “I can’t get over the things I’ve seen or done.”

These phrases indicate a need for support and may signal that a first responder is experiencing stress, burnout, or potentially more serious mental health issues like PTSD.

It is important to know that when responding to a coworker who has used one or several of the phrases, you need to be empathetic and non-judgmental.

Approach your coworker in a private and comfortable setting, when they are not on duty. This ensures they can speak openly without fear of judgment.

Let your coworker know that you care about their well-being and that you are there to listen. Avoid making assumptions or judgments about their situation.

Some common phrases that can show you care:

  • “I’m here for you.”
  • “I care about you.”
  • “You’re not alone.”
  • “It’s OK to feel this way.”
  • “It’s OK to ask for help.”

And this question is key: “What can I do to help?”

It’s OK to not have all the answers – it’s even OK to say “I don’t know what to say, but I’m here for you” – but being there as a source of support can make a significant difference.