When we come into the field of helping others (police, fire, EMT, 911 dispatchers, nurses, doctors, therapists), we get the message that we are supposed to be strong, not show emotion and stay stoic to all situations we come across.
To some degree there is truth in this. Those we are helping need us to hold strength for them as they cannot be strong themselves at the moment. In fact, it can make a situation worse if we are too emotional.
The reality is we see terrible human suffering every day and we will feel the effects of our careers on our lives. Let’s say you go to Lakewood Ranch Park every day to play tennis and one day your elbow starts hurting. Your doctor says you have a repetitive motion injury called tennis elbow. Our brains work similarly in that they can be injured by repetitive experiences.
Unfortunately, when we live life according to the belief that we have to stay strong to all experiences at all times, it affects our lives in numerous ways. You may notice increased sarcasm, withdrawal from family, friends, or activities we used to enjoy, sleeplessness, racing heart or racing thoughts, inability to relax, and more.
Perhaps you can relate to John, a veteran police officer who is married with one child. About two years ago, he responded to a car accident in which a child had died. For the rest of the day, instead of seeing that child in the car, he saw his own child in the car. He was feeling sick to his stomach and kept replaying the call. He never told anyone about this experience. He continued to work, noticing increased sarcasm at work and not talking to his coworkers as much. One day his wife told him he’s not himself anymore. He’s grumpy, withdrawn from his child and her, cut off and cold to talk to. This led to an argument which put more separation between them. He started going to the gym more to “let off steam” and avoid the stress at home. Eventually, John ended up in a scary place where he felt like he lost his mind.
The truth is, John is not crazy or weak. This is a normal reaction to the accumulated stressful work John does daily. Many first responders and medical professionals are in the same boat as John.
It is true that you are feeling lonely and confused. However, if we can learn just a few techniques to let go of the daily stress, we can get our lives, careers and families back where we want them to be. When we implement the three changes outlined below into our lives, it becomes entirely possibly to feel confident about ourselves and our ability to carry out our passion and life in the way we want, not dominated by emotions and negative thoughts. Keep reading for the tree tips so you can start regaining control today.
Sleeplessness, irritability, avoiding friends and family, and the inability to shut down are only the beginning of the downward spiral of work-related PTSD symptoms.
Living this way is extremely painful. It didn’t start out this bad, however. It crept up on you getting worse over time. Now it’s encompassing all aspects of your life, eating away at your sanity. Where will this lead if you don’t seek help? It’s already become much worse than you ever expected.
At the very least, it is draining and depressing. You find yourself avoiding just a bit more, drinking just a bit more, sleeping just a bit worse, not enjoying life just a bit more. At the very least, it is overwhelming and a pain.
The biggest downfall for not overcoming this problem is where the never ending downward spiral leads. The deepening pit gets harder and harder to escape until there is a real potential that you can lose your family, career, or worse, attempt suicide. Suicide is a very common cause of death among first responders and medical professionals.
Regaining control of your life and career is completely within your reach when you utilize the three tips that will be revealed just below.
Although you struggle with intense, all-encompassing pain, racing thoughts, sleeplessness, avoidance, increased alcohol consumption, inability to shut down, stress, crying, and feeling like you’re going crazy, you have the potential to get your feelings of strength and control back.
When we choose to use these skills outlined below and potentially enter therapy, there is a renewed potential for freedom from this nightmare. You have the opportunity to move from internal chaos to control and see your life, career and family become what it once was. It is not lost. You are not lost.
3 tips to achieving relief from work-related PTSD symptoms
Yes it is true you may be feeling scared and confused, wondering “what’s wrong with me” but the truth is, nothing at all is wrong with you. Your brain is actually doing exactly what it’s supposed to. But it is on hyper-drive. The brain’s alarm will not turn off. The alarm, which alerts you to danger, is much like a smoke detector. It doesn’t care if you burned the bread or the house is burning down. The brain doesn’t care if you are really in danger or it perceives you to be in danger.
The key to achieving relief is to get your brain to turn the alarm off. When your brain’s alarm is going off, it is alerting you to imminent danger, which means your entire body is alert and ready to respond appropriately. Contradictorily, shutting the brain’s alarm off starts with the body, not the brain.
Making these changes is not as difficult as you think because of something called neuroplasticity. This huge word just means your brain is capable of bouncing back. Think of it like memory foam. It will hold a position as long as you keep pressure there, but as soon as the pressure moves, the fibers return to their original state and other fibers mold to the new pressure.
Take a look at these 3 tips to see how you can achieve relief from work-related PTSD symptoms.
Am I normal?
One of the reasons you struggle with the inability to shut your brain off is because your brain is “set” to keep you alive. At this point, much of what you’ve experienced at work has informed you that there’s danger everywhere. As the protector and helper, your alarm system is staying on in order to alert you to this constant danger, thus having you always ready to survive the imminent (perceived) danger.
It makes complete sense that you’re feeling out of control including feeling more irritable and disconnected. When you go into fight/flight due to danger, fight is a very good response to stay alive. The problem is, when there is no actual danger, but your brain is staying alert to it, your fight/flight response is still active. Since you are in fight/flight, the fight response may come out as anger or sarcasm. The fight/flight response is also why you start to withdraw from loved ones and activities – either you are protecting them from danger or yourself from danger.
Instead of fighting this alone, do some research on PTSD in your career field (first responders, medical professionals). Learn the reality that you are not alone in this fight. Once you start to understand you are not alone, this war is easier to fight.
When you do this, you will start breaking some of your own barriers and stigmas about first responders and medical professionals seeking help for mental wellbeing, paving the way for relief and freedom.
I feel crazy
One of the reasons you feel crazy is because we allow others to see what we want them to see. You cannot see what others are going through unless they allow you. And be honest, as a protector and helper, can you let others in on your pain?
If you think about it this way, it makes sense that you feel crazy. You cannot talk about this to anyone and don’t see anyone else’s pain, which is very alienating. Your racing thoughts, inability to shut down, feeling like you want to cry…or scream…or both, your desire to stay away from everyone and everything, your increased time at the gym or otherwise away from the house, it’s all maddening. How can you possibly focus on your work with all of this going on in your head? How can you possibly be present at home with your family?
When you are having racing thoughts and cannot shut your brain down, you need to find ways to focus. Focusing takes a lot of practice with those racing thoughts. Focus on what you are doing with all of your senses. You can only have one full thought at a time. If you are fully focused on an activity, that’s all you can focus on. As you focus, literally tell yourself what you are doing…for example, as you are washing dishes, what temperature is the water? What does the soap smell like? What does the water sound like? What color are the plates you are washing? Literally tell yourself all of this in your mind. Don’t just think it, actually say it.
Together with my clients, I help them learn to focus by blocking out distractions and helping them to find what works best for them with regard to focusing. Sometimes we will use a form of bilateral stimulation to activate both hemispheres of the brain to enhance the effects. At home, you can do this by slowly tapping one foot then the other on the floor while continuing to focus on the activity you are doing.
After you start doing this, you will start shifting fibers in the memory foam allowing a new comfort to begin. You’ll notice that your breathing starts to slow down, your heartrate starts to regulate, and you will be more and more able to focus on the activity in front of you. This is just a beginning. You and I will make this change permanent.
I don’t know what to do
One of the reasons you feel so lost and hopeless is because you haven’t dealt with this before. Now it’s become all consuming and when you’re in a state of fight/flight, you are not supposed to think. Thinking can mean the difference between life and death. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for logical thought is literally turned off when you are in the fight/flight response.
Both of these together (never dealing with it and logic being turned off), make it impossible for you to know what to do. You are completely normal!
As stated above, you want to shut off the fight/flight, turning the alarm system off. Once the logic is turned back on, you can think things through again. This technique is going to be very hard, but I promise the effects of feeling calmer and in control will be worth it. 200 times per day, whether or not you think you need it, tighten all of your muscles (full body stretch), and breathe before letting all of your muscles relax again. By doing this 200 times per day, you are reminding your body to stay out of fight/flight; that it does not have to stay “on” all of the time. You’ll notice a relaxed feeling in the body.
When you schedule a session with me, we will review the benefits of stretching with purpose, practice several other techniques to calm the body, and identify how you will remember to practice them 200 times per day.
Adding this stretching and breathing routine to your life will make it possible for you to go through your day with a calm head and come home feeling refreshed instead of drained.
What do I do next?
Achieving relief from this torture will take time. This internal chaos did not happen overnight and you will not feel relief overnight. With practice, patience, and guidance from Meg Young, LCSW, LLC, you can regain control of your life from the grips of work-related PTSD symptoms. Schedule your intake appointment now to start feeling relief from work stress.