First responders are the first to arrive at the scene of a traumatic event, such as an accident, domestic disturbance, fire or natural disaster. They are faced with violence, pain, suffering and sometimes death. For police officers, fire fighters, paramedics and emergency medical technicians, witnessing human suffering is part of each day’s work.
It’s a job that requires tremendous energy and extreme alertness, and split second decisions with no room for error. It’s no surprise that first responders often turn to alcohol or drugs to cope with the extreme stress of the job.
Triggers for Substance Abuse in the Life of a First Responder
For first responders, an unwritten rule on the job is to keep pretending you can handle every situation that comes up. But facing devastation, destruction or death on a daily basis can take a toll, especially when you try to keep your emotional reactions under control at all times. If you dwell on sadness or anger on behalf of others, you may not be able to function. You may find that alcohol and drugs can take the edge off negative feelings and cumulative stress. Substances may seem to give you the ability to numb your feelings and escape from unpleasant images in your mind.
Fatigue is a very real problem for first responders. There are times when you may have to work grueling hours, and you may not always be able to go home at the end of your shift. Some first responders may turn to stimulants to keep going. Even when you’re able to go home, letting go of what you have experienced on any given day may not be easy.
Physical pain may be another trigger for turning to substances. At times your job may include pushing past fatigue or physical discomfort, and although you may not feel pain while you are on the job, you may wake up the next day hurting physically and emotionally.
Developing Healthy Coping Methods
The problem with relying on alcohol or other drugs to cope with stress is that addiction can set you up for even bigger problems. Substance abuse can result in diminished alertness and an inability to face your responsibilities. The more you drink or abuse drugs, the more substances you need to get the same effect. You may suffer other consequences, such as loss of your marriage or other relationships, or you could make irreversible mistakes on the job.
The first important step is to talk about your feelings with someone. While many in helping professionals view going to counseling as a sign of weakness, talk therapy with a mental health professional can help you to sort and release built-up trauma. Seek out a therapist specially trained in trauma recovery because even if you wouldn’t describe it this way, as a first responder you are living with trauma on a daily basis.
Exercising regularly can help relieve stress and tension. Relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and meditation can also help you to decompress. Consider making it a habit to write in a journal each day in order to process all that happened on the job.
Help for Substance Abuse
If you have been habitually using drugs or alcohol to cope with the extreme stress that you are under, you may not be able to simply quit. Many substances are physically addicting, and if you have developed physical dependence on a substance, you will need professional help to overcome this dependence.
Talk to your doctor or counselor about your concerns. He or she will be able to help evaluate your needs and make a plan for recovery. Overcoming substance abuse may be done on an inpatient or outpatient basis depending on your situation. Self-help groups such as SMART Recovery, Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous can also be a source of ongoing support.
Those in helping professions are quick to offer help to others but often are reluctant to reach out for help for themselves. Keep in mind that if you don’t take care of yourself and treat your own injuries, you won’t be able to do your job taking care of others.