Self-Care In Traumatic Times

Author: IAFF Staff

August 5, 2020

We are living in traumatic times. Whether it’s the increased spread of COVID-19, civil unrest in your community, financial instability or back-to-school uncertainty, fire service personnel are facing unprecedented levels of stress both on and off the job. Today more than ever, daily self-care is essential for survival and a powerful buffer against traumatic stress. Prioritize these strategies for self-care today:
  1. Find a daily diversion for stress. Choose something enjoyable that helps you unplug and do it daily. Twenty minutes of your favorite hobby, music, sports or playing with your dog can go a long way. Purposeful and mindless activities both have a role to play in creating a mental buffer against the impact of cumulative stress. 
  2. Stay connected. The role of your support system in coping with personal and occupational stress cannot be overstated. While isolation may seem more comfortable in times of severe stress, good relationships with your crew, family and friends are essential to your longevity in the highly stressful occupation you have chosen. Take advantage of video chat to stay connected to the people that matter. Don’t wait until you are in crisis to develop supportive relationships. 
  3. Get moving. Exercise not only releases feel-good endorphins (chemicals in the brain), but has been shown to reduce rumination, improve confidence and strengthen socialization. Don’t assume because you are a fire fighter that you are exempt from a daily exercise routine. Start simple and find an accountability partner who shares your values around health and fitness.
  4. Ensure proper food and fluid intake. A balanced diet and adequate hydration are essential to your daily functioning, mood and cognition. Start each day with a healthy breakfast, plenty of vegetables and whole grains, and be sure to drink enough water throughout the day by carrying a bottle with you.
  5. Balance busy time with down time. While many fire fighters work two jobs, do charity work or have other civic engagements, too much activity can become an effective but unhealthy strategy to avoid feeling anything. Try to schedule at least one day a week of mostly down time when you can rest, process and recuperate.
  6. Assume personality responsibility. Regardless of your specific circumstances, only you can take charge of your well-being and self-care. Decades of research on trauma survivors has identified the willingness to assume personal responsibility for one’s well-being as a key predictor of resilience in the aftermath of severe trauma and adversity (Southwick and Charney, 2018). 
  7. Challenge negative thinking. We each have a daily internal dialogue or “self-talk” that unconsciously impacts our mood, functioning, social interaction and behavior. Especially during difficult times, we tend to think in overly negative, simplistic and dysfunctional ways. While learning to just think positive may be unrealistic, you can learn to catch unhelpful thoughts and replace them with more balanced, rational ideas.
  8. Know when to ask for help. Feeling persistently agitated, hopeless or apathetic toward daily life is not a normal part of working hard or getting older. These experiences may be symptoms of a treatable behavioral health problem that requires attention. Know the warning signs and when it’s time to ask a peer, loved one or healthcare provider for help.

helmet and fire fighter jacket on truck

Where to Ask for Help

Sometimes your best efforts to cope with daily stress fall short. If you are struggling to function at work or home, it’s time to ask for help. Consider contacting the following resources:
  • Your peer support team
  • Your chaplain
  • Your Employee Assistance Program (EAP)
  • Local or online support groups
The IAFF Center of Excellence for Behavioral Health Treatment and Recovery is exclusively for IAFF members struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), complicated grief, substance abuse and other co-occurring behavioral health problems. To determine what level of treatment may be right for you, call today for a free, no-obligation and confidential screening.

For the latest behavioral health and other resources during COVID-19, visit

Lauren Kosc, LCPC, CCTP is a behavioral health specialist, licensed mental health clinician and blog writer for the International Association of Fire Fighters

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