International Stress Awareness Day is the first Wednesday in November
Would you recommend your profession to others? High stress occupations are EMT, 911 operators, military, medical, firefighters, and police officers. No matter what your job is, your reaction to stress is a risk factor for the development of depression. Mental strain can make you feel unsafe both at work and at home. If you are a first responder, you know what the impact of stress feels like.
Stress, Pressure, and Anxiety
Stress is excessive pressure in your body. It builds up psychologically, physiologically, and behaviorally. As a first responder, you’re always under pressure. You chose a career that has moments of extreme stress. Although you try to find healthy ways to manage it, you may be stress eating, drinking too much, or isolating yourself. It may be impacting your marriage and the relationship you have with your children.
Perhaps you’re anxious. Anxiety is a feeling of tension and worry. You wind up feeling tired, shaky, and having palpitations. Although palpitations are usually harmless, they can cause you to feel constantly edge. You worry when you already have enough things to worry about. If your anxiety doesn’t go away, it can become an anxiety disorder and affect your physical health.
Causes of First Responder Stress
Imagine that you are in a room with other first responders. I ask you what is causing your stress. You raise your hand and tell me that your stress is due to, “financial issues, longer shifts, and an unhealthy relationship with your supervisor.” I then ask if your supervisor is in the room. You might be thinking about a million things at the same time, “poor management, a supervisor’s discipline style, workplace discrimination, being second guessed, frequent criticism, sexual harassment, lack recognition, denials of requested days off, or issues with confidentiality.”
Suppose the person sitting next to you raises their hand and says, “exposure to violence and personal injury.” Someone else shouts out, “organizational practices, bureaucracy, work schedules like long hours, shiftwork, night shift, and excessive overtime.” You might hear another first responder state, “dangerous job risks, violent confrontations with the public, or the possibility of being injured.”
I could imagine hearing someone reveal, “trauma, the way my body feels after a critical incident, serious accident, or when I’m exposed to suffering.” Maybe somebody would say, “co-worker relations or a lack of peer support.” Conceivably, with a smile, you could raise your hand again and share Reba McEntire’s quote, “To thrive in life, you need three bones. A wishbone. A backbone. And a funny bone.” I’d chime in at that point and talk about having a sense of humor and gallows humor. A good laugh is a stress reliever. You can manage the symptoms of stress with humor!
Work-family conflict causes signs of stress within the family. Perhaps someone would raise their hand and mention, “being a single parent, last minute plan cancellation, and being absent from family functions.” Someone feeling brave at that point may add, “marital difficulties, a disrupted family life, my family feeling stigma, and having a second job.”
Acute stress is a fleeting emotional or physical stress response immediately felt after an overwhelming event. Symptoms can happen minutes or even hours later. Acute stress is usually short-term, lasting less than a month. Symptoms can include intrusive memories, uncontrolled anger, irritability, elevated heart rate, difficulty breathing, sweating, headache, chest, neck, stomach, and jaw pain, nausea, and feeling numb. Acute stress can become episodic acute stress due to the frequency of symptoms. For the most part, symptoms may be due to daily unreasonable demands or not having the resources to get the job done.
Although acute stress goes away quickly, that is not the case with chronic stress due to unending stressful situations at work. Absenteeism, turnover, alcohol abuse, sleep disorders, and suicide are huge problems. Symptoms linked to chronic or long-term stress include cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke. You might be on autopilot and not even realize the hold that chronic stress has on you.
Advice to Leaders
First responders are dealing with personal issues, adverse childhood experiences that have never been managed, financial problems, failing marriages, unhealthy coping, and sleep issues. Departments and EAPs can update their agency policies on wellness while identifying best practices programs on safety and wellness. They need to ensure that any clinician recommended to provide mental health support is qualified to support a first responder. These clinicians need to understand unique first responder job-related stressors, the ways that they deal with them, and interventions that work specifically for them.
Jane Wagner said, “reality is the leading cause of stress for those in touch with it.” It’s time to get real and in touch with ways to manage stress. Many first responders have said to me that they are just doing their job. If that’s the case, they need to just find healthy ways to manage the stressors related to their job. It’s time to take control back. I recommend that you put your strengths into practice, live your values, make meaning of your role, and be grateful for what you can do serving others. Whether you speak to a peer, your spouse, or call 988, the bottom line is that you don’t have to struggle alone. Although International Stress Awareness Day is the first Wednesday in November, for all first responders, such as those who are Living Blue, it needs to be every day.
Barbara is a leading authority and best-selling author on managing burnout, secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and vicarious trauma. As a nationally recognized keynote speaker, she motivates audiences to build their resilience and create work-life balance. Her programs help leaders and teams manage workplace chronic stressors and get over burnout at work.
Barbara's newest book, "But I Didn't Say Goodbye: Helping Families After a Suicide", is available now on Amazon - https://amzn.to/2FwS6JI
• Three weeks prior to giving birth to triplets, her father died by suicide. Her story was featured in the Emmy award winning documentary, Fatal Mistakes, Families Shattered by Suicide narrated by Mariette Hartley. Many employees are grieving personal loss. She offers programs for leaders on lost productivity and performance while managing grief at work.
• As a sought-after keynote speaker who has presented to over 500 groups since 1991, including corporations, state and national associations and non-profit organizations, Barbara offers work-life balance strategies for leaders to implement right away. With clarity and humor, her speaking engagements are designed to give audiences powerful and practical strategies of work-life balance, wellbeing, and self-care that can be implemented immediately.
• Barbara is a Board-Certified Expert in Traumatic Stress and Diplomate with the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. She received a Bachelor of Science in psychology and a Master of Arts degree in community health, with a concentration in thanatology, both from Brooklyn College.