Understanding the Cycle of Anxiety

Author: IAFF Staff

December 28, 2017

As a fire fighter or paramedic, the work you do can be heavy, so it’s not unusual for you to experience some anxiety. But if you have become more tense and restless in your daily life, or increasingly apprehensive before going on a call, you may be experiencing symptoms of an anxiety disorder.

Anxiety is the experience of worry, apprehension or fear in the face of a real or imagined threat, usually involving stress-inducing events or interactions. While anyone can experience anxiety from time to time, several factors may influence how likely a person is to experience pathological anxiety. The chances of anxiety rise significantly for people in high-stress careers, such as fire fighters and paramedics.

If left unaddressed, this condition can affect every aspect of your life. The good news? It doesn’t have to. By understanding the roots of your anxiety and practicing coping strategies, you can learn to manage this condition and get back to the work and people you love.

Starting the Cycle

Even the most confident and capable men and women sometimes feel afraid, nervous or anxious from time to time. But in the face of the traumatic events that fire fighters and paramedics experience on the job, occasional anxiety can quickly become severe and debilitating. You likely chose a career in the fire service because you wanted to help people. But what happens when you go on a call that ends badly? What happens when you can’t save the people you so desperately want to help?   

Maybe you can’t stop thinking about what happened during that call. Maybe you can’t get the faces of those whose lives were forever altered or lost out of your head. And maybe these thoughts are making you doubt your ability to do your job at all.  

When these thought patterns start to take over, you may become stuck in a cycle of self-perpetuating anxiety. With the next call, you may experience overwhelming feelings of fear that things will go south again. You may even start to feel anxious about the fact that you’re anxious. What if you make a mistake on the job because of your anxiety? Physical symptoms — such as muscle tension, increased heart rate, trouble concentrating, dry mouth or dizziness — may kick in. As you notice these changes, you may panic even more, which only makes them worse.

This is the truly insidious, cyclical nature of anxiety — the more you pay attention to it and the more you notice it, the more anxious you become. Fortunately, with the right combination of personal exercises and professional support, you can learn to manage your anxiety and confront your fears.

Breaking the Cycle

While anxiety might feel isolating, countless other fire fighters and paramedics have been in your boots. They’ve learned how to manage their anxiety, and you can too. The key to keeping your condition under control is changing the cycle of anxiety from something that perpetuates fear and negativity into something that encourages empowerment, positivity and growth.

In most cases, anxiety tends to get worse when you avoid what makes you anxious. For example, when you don’t go to work because you’re afraid that someone will get hurt, you confirm the belief that you can’t handle your job duties. You may avoid short-term anxiety this way, but you ultimately feed the cycle of anxiety. When you confront your fears and succeed in spite of them, you develop self-confidence and realize that you can handle the situations that make you anxious.

As you face your fears head on, you may be able to prevent anxiety in future scenarios. Learning a variety of calming and correcting skills and techniques, like the one listed below, can make facing your fears and managing your anxiety easier.

  • Take time to breathe. Breathing slowly and mindfully has a calming effect in difficult moments, which can reduce your anxiety. Take slow, shallow breaths in a controlled manner, bringing air in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Challenge negative thoughts. Because anxiety is usually driven by unhelpful or irrational thought patterns, challenging negative thinking head on can help you replace your negative thoughts with more balanced, rational ones. This doesn’t mean ignoring your thoughts or pushing them away — engage with them directly and test their validity. Ask yourself if your negative thoughts are grounded in truth, or if they’re a mouthpiece for your anxiety. Replace the thoughts as you see fit. For example, “I can’t go on this call” can change to “I can handle this. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again.”
  • Confide in someone you trust. If you’re having a hard time, relaying your struggles to a friend, family member or co-worker can help you feel less alone. There’s comfort in feeling understood, and voicing your anxieties can help you work through and overcome them.
  • Seek professional help when necessary. Even with the best of intentions, sometimes it can be too difficult to overcome anxiety on your own. And some anxiety conditions, namely post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), need to be addressed with the help of a specialist. If your anxiety consistently impacts your personal and professional life, you constantly relive a traumatic event, or you cope with racing thoughts by using drugs or alcohol, seeking help at the IAFF Center of Excellence could put you on the path to hope and healing.
  • Be patient with yourself. If you expect your anxiety to go away overnight, you’ll be left feeling frustrated, defeated, and likely more anxious than you were before. You cannot berate yourself into getting better. Instead, try to treat yourself the way you would a friend or family member who you care about deeply. Be kind. Be patient. You’re working toward a better life. Let that be enough for today.

Anxiety doesn’t have to rule your life. If you notice a friend, family member, or fellow IAFF member struggling, let them know that you’re there to help. If you’re wrestling with anxiety, don’t be afraid to ask for help. And if life feels out of control, don’t hesitate to reach out to the IAFF Center of Excellence. Call today to take the first step toward hope, healing and a new life.

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