Just as we watch for signs of dehydration when we know we have been working in the heat for too long, we need to watch for signs that stress can cause in our lives. With parched lips, lack of sweat, dark urine etc we know we need to drink more water or maybe some gatorade.
But what do we look for in our behavior, our interactions with others, maybe the tricks our minds can play on us, physical reactions, or perhaps even spiritual changes to what may be overlooked signs of stress caused by disturbing scenes, or the feeling of having unmet mission goals?
Please have a look at this file. This is only a tool to help us see what some normal reactions to abnormal and troublesome incidents might be. If you find you are having disturbed sleep, feel fatigued, have headaches, or seem overly sensative, know that these can be normal… you are not losing it. If you feel numb, or guilty, lost your appetite (not just for food by the way) or feel like withdrawing, or feel a bit spaced-out for that matter, or angry at God, know that these are just some of the normal ways we as humans react to trauma-induced stress. These can be reactions to both very disturbing incidents, and to repeated exposure to frequent but less disturbing moments of crisis. Some will have few of the reactions listed, some may have several. Few will have none. Please know that you are quite normal if you find yourself unintentionally reacting in any of these ways.
So, how do you process these reactions? Time often helps, but not always, and not alone:
Talking about what you saw, heard, felt, touched, had to do, smelled etc with somebody whom you can trust. Not just trust, but somebody who kind of gets what you do as a first responder and won’t be traumatized by hearing about it. Simply talking about it can be the most helpful thing in many if not most cases.
There are other ways to help yourself as well, for instance:
1) Do not overdue the alcohol: especially in the first 24-48 hours after exposure to traumatic stress. I am not the booze-police, but if you can avoid alcohol during that time your body will not be deprived of REM sleep, and will better process the fight/flight/freeze chemicals that dump into your body during stressful times.
2) Drink extra water: 1.5 to 2 times your normal amount will help flush those out quicker too by the way.
3) Breathing exercises can do wonders to increase oxygen in your lungs and then your mind which can help you process the stress incredibly better among numerous other benefits to your body as it processes stress.
4) Exercise: whether a walk in the park or a pick-up game of hoops, release chemicals that make you feel happier and suppress those that work against your happiness (Think: endorphin, dopamine and serotonin).
5) Food: Avoid too much sugar, starchy, or heavy “comfort” foods (donuts, pasta, “junk” food and similar snacks) that complicate what your body is processing currently. On the other hand, make sure you eat when you should even if you don’t feel hungry. Get some protein, fruit and veggies.
6) Return to your normal spiritual practices whether that is prayer, meditation, reading, worship services, conversations with those who share your spiritual views, or other spiritual exercises.
7) Finally, what have you found to be helpful before when you realize you were dealing with something stressful? My 29 yr old son recently discovered fidget spinners. Seems weird to me, but seemed to really work for him so who am I to say otherwise? I find a walk with my wife and my dog in the evening or the cool of the morning almost always helps. What about you?
If some of these don’t seem to be enough to help you, try one of the following:
– contact your chaplain,
– touch base with one of your peer support team members,
– use your EAP,
– or check with your insurance about counseling
If a conversation with one of us doesn’t seem to help, I am happy to help you find other resources that specialize in working with 1st responders. If these normal reactions do not go away in about a month, it would be good to contact your doctor or a mental health professional.
There are no cures for what you sometimes have to deal with as a responder, but there is help for how you deal with it.