PTSD — It’s for Real

Our fire service has recently started to understand the toll our firefighters work under on a daily basis. That toll can be classified as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It is the mental disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event. We can characterize PTSD as a dysfunction of the body’s stress coping system. image

Even though our firefighters are at risk for stress as a result of the job, it is important to understand that not all will develop PTSD.

Carolynn Cisneros of Blue Ridge Counseling Services says, “The term stressed is used to describe one way we may feel if there is too much on our plate, there are too many emotions involved, or any other circumstance that interferes with a peaceful existence. First Responders have emergency situations every day. Crisis situations are the norm and are both physically and emotionally demanding. In order to respond effectively to these crises, a natural process between our brains and bodies takes over.”

All the reports say that it is the job of our firefighter’s co-workers, officers and chiefs to looks for signs of PTSD. I somewhat disagree with this, because a lot of the stress is also seen at home.

The stress symptoms affect us as individuals, organizations and as family units. The spouses are the group that is least aware of stress and the signs and symptoms that accompany stress. We must use a prevention approach and pre-educate ourselves to be cognizant of the signs and symptoms and also the survival techniques that are required to overcome a stressful event.

The four major divisions of stress symptoms are cognitive, emotional, physical and behavioral. As stress affects the cognitive aspects of the lives of our firefighters we often find that they have memory problems and poor attention spans. This is due to the mind trying to work through the crisis and is unable to dedicate the full capabilities to the tasks at hand.

They are also faced with difficulties making decisions and slowed problem-solving skills. As stress affects them emotionally we see the losses of emotional control, guilt, grief, anxiety and a feeling of being overwhelmed. Physically, emergency responders are in excellent health. However, in this case, we see that responders often times have physical symptoms such as; muscle tremors, chest pain, gastro-intestinal distress, difficulty in breathing in the building, respiratory distress, headaches and hypertension.

As the stress effects behavioral capacities we see that the symptoms are profound. They can include change in activity, social withdrawal, emotional outbursts, alcohol consumption and even changes in sexual functioning.

Even though our firefighters are at risk for stress as a result of the job, it is important to understand that not all will develop PTSD. The most important protective factor is having a support system at home.

We as spouses need to realize that it is OK for our firefighters to have an emotional reaction to a traumatic event and that they can talk about it with us as it effects the family. It’s very possible that there are members of your department, or even you, who may be suffering from PTSD — there is no shame in this.

Dedra Cline welcomes your questions and comments. She can be reached at

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