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Stress and trauma recovery

A first responder perspective

By Susan Ferren

No one would contest that first responders see more stress and trauma in their careers, sometimes in a shift, than most people will see in a lifetime. But the symptoms of stress and trauma are not reserved for certain professions or careers; their impacts affect first responders, soldiers, and civilians alike.

Post-traumatic stress (PTS) has become an expected and accepted diagnosis for a list of symptoms associated with either acute or cumulative exposure to an event or events that are overwhelming for an individual. The events can be as unique as the person. It may be a roadside bomb for a soldier, a fatal car crash for a first responder, or the third wildfire evacuation in as many years for a civilian. In some cases, the symptoms begin immediately after the traumatic event; in others, the symptoms may not begin until a person is exposed to a trigger (such as a familiar sight, sound, or change in weather).

Any of these events can create a host of symptoms that may include, but are not limited to: fear, agitation, hyper-vigilance, isolation, depression, anxiety attacks, insomnia, flashbacks, and more. In severe cases, professional counseling, medication, or treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) may be necessary, but for many, symptoms can be dealt with or eliminated through regular practices that calm and soothe the nervous system.

First Responders Resiliency, Inc., is a Sonoma County nonprofit that provides help for first responders and their families. It is one of the first programs in the nation offering proactive help for PTS.

According to founder and executive director Susan Farren (a former paramedic herself), there are several techniques that, when used regularly, may get an overactive nervous system out of a fight-or-flight response: 1) Just notice. Pay attention to what you were thinking about right before you began to feel anxiety (which is referred to as a fight-orflight response) and then ask yourself a couple of questions: “Am I in any imminent danger at this moment?” If the answer is no, the next question is… “What is true about my current circumstances?” Then answer it out loud: “I’m home, I’m safe, I can breathe, I have food, I have water, there is no imminent threat.”

2) Practice a self-soothing technique such as combat breathing. Breathe in slowly to the count of four, hold your breath for the slow count of four, exhale slowly to the count of four, and then hold your breath for the count of four. Repeat. Doing this slow, deep-breathing technique for only a couple of minutes sends a message to the brain that there is no reason for a fight-or-flight response, and it may interrupt an anxiety attack.

3) Practice mindfulness: Notice how your brain likes to catastrophize by thinking about the past or the future. The truth is we can’t change the past, and we can’t control the future, so practice the art of being in the moment. Where are you now? Can you feel the chair beneath your thighs, the floor beneath your feet, or the air around you? Take a few slow, deep breaths, feel the air in your lungs and notice what a miracle PTSD – continued from page 15

it is to be able to breathe without assistance. Do this as often as necessary to stay present.

4) Find something you can get lost in, like coloring, doing a crossword puzzle, walking in nature, or relaxing in a bubble bath. Anything that distracts your brain from its desire to worry is a win. Consider making this a daily habit.

5) Meditate. Meditation is no longer just for hippies; it is a proven scientific technique that centers the mind, calms the nervous system, and eases anxiety. Whether you choose to listen to a guided meditation on an app such as Calm, Headspace, or Insight Timer, pick a YouTube meditation to follow, or simply sit quietly and count your breathing for a minute or two, meditation is a gift to yourself and those around you.

These are just a few techniques that may help reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety. When practiced regularly, they can have a profound effect on many of the symptoms of PTS.

If you or a loved one has not been able to get relief from symptoms that you believe may be related to PTS, please consider seeking professional help.