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February 19, 2018
Stress. Every adult has experienced it at some point in their lives. In many cases, it’s harmless and lasts only a short time, but post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a different story.
The National Institute of Mental Health defines PTSD as a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, terrifying, or dangerous event. PTSD can also occur after repeated exposure to potentially traumatic events. Studies show that 1 in 5 fire fighters will suffer from PTSD during their career. The symptoms can be debilitating, impacting your physical and mental health, relationships, job and other areas of your personal life. While we hear about PTSD in war veterans, we don’t hear as much about what it’s like to live with it as a fire fighter/paramedic.
Do you have or suspect that a fire fighter you know has PTSD, but you’re unsure of the best way to help? You may have noticed changes in behavior, and be wondering if those changes are associated with PTSD. Becoming familiar with the symptoms can help you understand what PTSD in fire fighters can be like. With this knowledge, you can get help or offer the support and understanding to help your friend or family member cope.
The symptoms of PTSD can occur at any time, and the severity, frequency, and associated triggers can vary from one fire fighter to the next. They can also come and go without warning. At night, you might experience nightmares of the traumatic event and wake up with a headache in the morning. You may struggle with negative feelings associated with the incident throughout the day, including depression, guilt, shame, and irritability.
Flashbacks, intrusive memories, and frightening thoughts are other common symptoms of PTSD that you or your fellow fire fighter might experience on any given day. Flashbacks, which involve reliving the traumatic event, are often associated with a racing heartbeat and sweating. When you experience one of these episodes, it might temporarily feel like the event is happening all over again. You might even respond in the same way you did with the actual event by screaming, running or jumping up to respond as you would on a call.
The flashbacks and negative thoughts associated with PTSD often occur as a direct response to a particular trigger. Triggers aren’t the same for every fire fighter. For some, specific sounds or sights can mentally pull you back to the traumatic event. For others, certain smells or sensations might be what conjures up a flashback or invasive, unwelcome thought. But sometimes these thoughts can surface on their own without a trigger.
A fire fighter struggling with the symptoms of PTSD might use a variety of coping mechanisms in an attempt to feel normal again. Some are prescribed medications for depression, pain, and other conditions, while others resort to illicit drug and alcohol use instead. But even prescription drugs can be abused. With or without medication, you might respond to symptoms by withdrawing and isolating yourself while others might lash out. Panic attacks, tense feelings, and a general feeling of mistrust are also potential responses that fire fighters with PTSD might experience on any given day.
Some fire fighters consider suicide because they see it as the only way to end the pain and erase memories. If you’re having thoughts like this, you aren’t alone. Similar to recovery from substance use or mental health disorders, recovery from suicidal thoughts is possible. Regardless of which symptoms you experience, your life and the lives of those around you will inevitably be affected. PTSD has the power to interfere with your work, relationships and social situations. But help and healing are available.
If you or your fellow fire fighter has PTSD that isn’t currently being treated or hasn’t been officially diagnosed, call the IAFF Center of Excellence. The Center was designed specifically for IAFF members and offers individualized programs to treat PTSD. Call to get the help you or a friend need.
Medical Disclaimer: The IAFF Center of Excellence aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.