All firefighters can identify a reason that sparked their initial passion for becoming a firefighter—to serve their community, to save people, to work as part of a team, to become part of the station house brotherhood or something else. That reason turns into a passion that supersedes any fear of danger or job-related stress.
Impact of a stressful career
When comparing vocations with the highest stress levels, those that top the list involve some kind of personal danger. CareerCast studied stress factors with regard to 200 jobs, including required travel, deadlines, working under public scrutiny, physical demands, environmental conditions, hazards, risks to one’s own life, and interactions with the public at large. Firefighting was ultimately ranked the second-most stressful job, with enlisted military personnel at the top spot.(1)
Prospective firefighters are likely well aware of some of the risks of being a firefighter; however, they may not be aware that chronic stress can impair clear thinking and decision-making. Further, research shows that unmanaged stress may lead to anxiety, depression and PTSD.(2)
When stress becomes unbearable, some firefighters binge on alcohol at a rate of two to three times the general population, according to various studies.(3) The USFA estimates that drug abuse among firefighters is around 10 percent. Some studies report that 30-50 percent of American men and just over 25 percent of women with PTSD struggle with drug abuse or dependence at some point in their lifetime.(4) That is about twice the rate of individuals without PTSD. When we correlate the high rate of firefighter stress to PTSD, it’s easy to connect the dots between stress and the occupation of firefighting.
There are several stressors that can add to chronic stress among firefighters. Having repeated exposure to sudden, traumatic events is a major stressor. Additionally, firefighters bear the heavy responsibility of being entrusted with the safety and well being of others. Some other stressors that may not seem as impactful as traumatic events, but that can add up and create stress, include issues related to shift work and sleep deprivation, personnel issues at the station, and problems with supervisors or subordinates.
Managing stress on the front end
When firefighters understand the signs of stress and how it can impact them physically and mentally, they are more apt to take measures to manage stress on the front end. The end result is that firefighters will have a greater likelihood of overall wellness. Firefighters who enjoy optimal health have less absenteeism and sustain a higher morale. Making a stress management regime part of a firefighter’s daily routine may alleviate some of the effects of chronic stress so that they sleep better, and aren’t susceptible to unhealthy coping strategies like overeating, taking drugs or abusing alcohol.
One of the first steps in making a commitment to managing chronic stress is to acknowledge the stigma against getting help. Firefighters need to support one another in recognizing signs and symptoms of debilitating stress and support each other. They need to change the fire station conversation, shifting away from using unhealthy coping strategies as a means for dealing with trauma and instead create an environment that encourages conversations about instituting regular, healthy stress-prevention strategies.
Basic care: Most people have a routine that includes some order of brushing their teeth, getting dressed, making their beds, showering, grooming, preparing meals, and getting ready for whatever the day holds. Part of the daily routine for firefighters should include eating healthy, well-balanced meals, even when they don’t feel up to it. In and among the abundance of station house fare, they need to see food as a source of fuel for their bodies.
Focused stress-relief strategies: Performing physical exercise reduces stress hormones. Whether a firefighter’s days begin at home or at the station house, they need to work physical exercise into their daily routines, giving it the same degree of importance as brushing their teeth and taking a shower.
Donna M. White, LMHC, CACP, states that practicing relaxation techniques is a way of rejuvenating our minds and bodies. It quiets the body, giving it time to repair itself.(5) White notes that all highly stressed individuals can fend off physical and mental health problems by carving time into each day to work on relaxation techniques. Some examples of relaxation techniques include:
- Breathing exercises
- Active relaxation exercises
- Visualization exercises
- Mindfulness exercises
- Stretching exercises
- Tai Chi
Other stress-reducing therapies that may be helpful in reducing stress are biofeedback and Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Biofeedback is a type of therapy that trains an individual to have control over various parts of their bodies, including brainwaves, breathing, heart rate, muscles, sweat glands and body temperature. EMDR is a type of therapy that is used to mirror eye movements during the REM sleep phase. The therapist guides the patient through processing painful memories while using manipulatives to coach the patient’s body into a form of REM sleep. EMDR allows the patient to hold onto traumatic memories long enough to process and resolve them.
Creating a comfortable, relaxing zone of space at home or in the station house can also be helpful toward reducing stress. Comfortable seating, aromatherapy and soft music in a designated space can offer short respite for hectic days. Having short periods of private time, away from the public and other firefighters, helps refresh and ground stressed firefighters.
The most crucial time to be aware of firefighter stress is after a traumatic call. The International Critical Stress Foundation recommends dealing with stress within the first 24 to 48 hours after a stressful call.
Some ways to reduce stress following a particularly stressful call include:
- Alternating physical exercise and relaxation exercises
- Keeping busy—do things that make you feel good
- Remember that you’re normal; flashbacks and dreams will decrease with time
- Talk about it and help coworkers with it
- Resist the temptation to cope with drugs or alcohol
- Ask for help and be willing to receive it
- Maintain a normal schedule
- Spend time with others—don’t seclude yourself
Support from family members
The effects of stress can be as perplexing to family members of firefighters as they are to the person experiencing severe stress. Firefighters need to share with other family members what they can do that feels supportive. They may just need someone who will listen or spend time with them without talking about it. They may need to be reminded to resume doing everyday chores and tasks as they feel able to. The firefighter may need some private time to process the traumatic event, and need to be gently reminded that it’s not healthy to isolate for too long. Firefighters may need to educate others about the kinds of comments that are not helpful like, “It could have been worse,” or other statements that make them feel worse rather than better. Family members may need to be educated about how they can offer patient and reassuring support.
Firefighters who don’t actively address stress can expect job-related trauma to affect them in every way possible. Certainly, firefighters need to be encouraged to process traumatic calls soon after the event, but because of the chronic nature of the stress, they need to manage it on a daily basis. The firefighter’s best defense against PTSD, depression and anxiety is to make self-care an everyday activity.
1. The Most Stressful Jobs of 2016. (n.d.). Retrieved from CareerCast: http://tinyurl.com/2016-stressful-jobs
2. Snyder, J. S., Sournier, A. B., Michelle, Pickel, J., & Cameron, H. A. (2011). Adult hippocampal neurogenesis buffers stressresponses and depressive behaviour. Retrieved from Nature.com: http://tinyurl.com/hy6567j
3 Jahnke, S. (2015, April 7). Firefighter Research. Retrieved from FireRescue1: http://tinyurl.com/ff-and-alcohol
4 Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Addiction. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://tinyurl.com/PTSD-addiction
5 White, D. M. (2015). Relaxation: Make Time and Take Time for Self-Care. Retrieved from PsychCentral: http://tinyurl.com/ff-self-care