Feeling Scorched: Burnout, Traumatic Stress and the Need for Self-Care

Author: IAFF

October 30, 2017

In recent months, our nation has witnessed the courage and dedication of hundreds of IAFF members in response to hurricanes in Texas and Florida, a mass casualty shooting in Las Vegas, and raging wildfires in northern California. Whether you’re a veteran fire fighter or paramedic, new to the job, or in recruit school, you know what it means to be pushed to your limit.

Burnout in the fire service is an area of growing concern in departments across the nation. Have you been running on empty? Chronic sleep deprivation, repeated or prolonged exposure to disaster zones, or simply neglecting your personal life to work overtime are all scenarios many IAFF members face.

To take care of yourself and your crew, it’s important to know the signs of burnout and traumatic stress and when it’s time to ask for help.


Burnout Signs

Burnout is the feeling of extreme exhaustion and being overwhelmed, often caused by periods of continuous and extreme exertion, with little time to rest. This exhaustion may be accompanied by feelings of failure, cynicism or doubt that your efforts make any difference to those you serve. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) further identifies these commons signs of burnout:  
  • Feeling sad, depressed or apathetic about your work or life
  • Feeling frustrated or irritable at things that don’t normally bother you
  • Feeling indifferent, isolated or disconnected from others
  • Feeling chronically exhausted or overwhelmed by other’s problems
  • Poor hygiene or self-care

Without intervention, burnout may be a precursor to more severe behavioral health issues.

Secondary Traumatic Stress Symptoms

While awareness has increased about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the fire service, it’s important to recognize that an individual need not directly experience a traumatic event to develop stress reactions. For some fire fighters or paramedics involved in disaster response, sifting through a destroyed neighborhood or delivering medical care to desperate citizens might take a deeper psychological toll than battling a blaze.

According to the CDC, secondary traumatic stress is considered the stress reaction resulting from exposure to another individual’s traumatic experiences, rather than from direct exposure to a traumatic event. Sometimes, accompanied by burnout, symptoms of secondary traumatic stress mimic those of post-traumatic stress, including alterations in mood, cognition, physiological arousal and intrusive thoughts or images.

How to Care for Yourself

Similar to post-traumatic stress, symptoms of burnout and secondary traumatic stress can greatly interfere with your ability to enjoy life or function at work or home. To decrease the likelihood of developing these symptoms, adopt a proactive attitude towards self-care today:
  • Don’t bottle it up. Express thoughts and feelings about your experiences on the job with a trusted peer, family member or professional.
  • Resist the urge to isolate. Even if you don’t want to discuss your experience, simply being around family and friends can help restore a sense of normalcy and connection to others.
  • Recuperate on days off. Find a way to unplug from work through a hobby, relaxation or downtime with family.
  • Establish a buddy system. Hold yourself and your crew accountable by agreeing to check in with each other regularly.
  • Ensure proper food and fluid intake. A balanced diet and adequate hydration are the fuel your body needs to operate.
  • Have a daily coping outlet. Exercise, meditation, music or practicing gratitude are effective ways to counter stress.

Even when practicing good self-care, sometimes the stress of the job can overwhelm your resources to cope. If you are feeling hopeless or consumed by unwanted thoughts or feelings, or you’ve resorted to drugs or alcohol to cope with your experience, NOW is the time to ask for help. Effective evidence-based treatments are available and often covered by your insurance.

The IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery is a unique treatment setting exclusively designed for IAFF members who are struggling with depression, addiction, PTSD and other mental health concerns. Compassionate and confidential screening is just a phone call away. Learn more about your options for taking back your life. Call (855) 999-9845 today.

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