Last fall, the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team deployed chaplains to the Party Rock Fire near Lake Lure, North Carolina. Chaplains worked from their Mobile Ministry Center truck, which was located inside the fire base camp. They met and interacted with hundreds of firefighters, many from North Carolina, and several groups from Western states. Chaplains were with firefighters every day for over a week.
The chaplains could see the physical toll on the faces of the firemen as they came off the mountains. They witnessed the fatigue caused by long hours of laborious work combined with lack of sleep. The longevity of a call out like the Party Rock Fire can have a huge impact on the responder’s physical, emotional and spiritual life.
This type of occupation, this type of unrelenting stress, can cause serious post-traumatic stress. If left unchecked, the exposure to stress can lead to permanent changes.
Post-Traumatic Stress is the psychological reaction some people are left with after a traumatic event where their life or the life of someone else was threatened. It can test their coping skills and cause them to re-live the event in their mind; to think about it over and over again. People suffering from post-traumatic stress avoid things that remind them of the event. They can’t shake it. They dream about it. These effects are prolonged, lasting more than a month.
While we refer to it as a disorder, researchers have found that PTSD actually brings about a physical change in the body.
There are two small glands hidden deep within our brains that contain chemicals, which control our emotions, memory, sensations and fears. The glands, the hippocampus and amygdala, are found almost side-by-side in the temporal lobe.
The hippocampus contains receptors, which are very stress sensitive. There is evidence that people who have experienced severe, long-lasting traumatic stress, show atrophy of the hippocampus.
The amygdala is a small gland, which appears to be at the very center of most of the brain events associated with fear. According to the Madison Institute of Medicine, the amygdala responds to severe traumas with an un-erasable fear response and severe stress can produce physical changes to the gland. The over-reactive amygdala helps the brain establish a connection between past fear-producing situations and pairs them with a present stimulus that may be non-threatening. This incorrect conditioning causes the individual to maintain a constant state of hyper-arousal.
As chaplains, it is not uncommon for us to see the signs of PTSD, especially in first responders, police, firemen, and others who have dealt with life and death situations. People in this line of service have seen things that many of us will never see, and have dealt with issues beyond most people’s emotional threshold.
When someone is struggling, it’s written all over his or her face. Often their words say one thing, but the fatigue, shock and exhaustion tell a different story.
I refer to this as “emotional bleeding.” If you were on a call and your hand was somehow cut off, you’d have to leave the field to seek medical attention. The same thing happens to us emotionally, but we try to tough it out until it’s too late. By that point the PTSD is already making the physical change in the person’s body.
What do we do when we see the signs? If emotional strain leading towards PTSD is considered emotional bleeding, then we as chaplains are emotional triage. We’re not the doctors who will fix the injury, but rather we’re interventionists; emotional first responders.
It’s our goal to get the person to open up and begin talking, often by asking the question “How are you holding up?” and then proceeding with additional follow up questions. On a base level, healing begins as emotions are shared and the burden that is carried is gradually lifted.
We attempt to ensure emotional stability to the point where the situation can be moved along to a skilled professional and a level of care warranted by the physical, emotional and spiritual injury that has been inflicted.
My personal message to you today — as we look at the impact of PTSD and emotional stress — is to express yourself. I was in law enforcement for 35 years, and I understand the mindset, but trust me when I say that you aren’t doing yourself or your family any favors by keeping your emotions and experiences bottled up inside you.
Talk to your department chaplain, your partner, or even your pastor. Seek professional help if needed. Please understand that this isn’t a sign of weakness, but a natural function of how we as humans are built.
Most of all, take care of yourselves — emotionally, spiritually and physically. We need you on the front lines, and appreciate all you do.