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Addressing the Risks of On the Job Stress: The Importance of Self-Care for First Responders

Although every job has an element of stress, for those who work in the first responder community, stress can take on heightened levels. Not only are first responders dealing with deadlines and paperwork, like any other job, but often with life and death scenarios where the stakes are high and split-second decisions can have monumental and life-altering results. It is an unfortunate reality that many in the helping professions unwittingly let stress and burnout creep in to become a destructive presence in their home life, health, job performance, and their relationships. Stress as a third wheel can throw an entire system out of balance.

Most of those in the first-responder community are highly capable individuals who adjust well to their extreme work environment and they may even come to view it as more rewarding and challenging than any other job. However, chronic exposure to on-the-job stressors, particularly those involving heightened-stakes scenarios, can eventually take a toll on a person’s mental, emotional, and relational health no matter how capable or experienced the person is in their field.

Chronic stress also takes a toll on the physical body and can lead to symptoms as mild as fatigue to as serious as heart failure. Emotional and mental health can also suffer from exposure to long-term stressors; development of depression, anxiety, PTSD, and suicidal ideation are very real and serious risks for those in the helping professions. Prolonged stress can also negatively affect job performance and increase risks for mistakes or injuries in the workplace.

It is essential that those who work in the helping professions take steps to maintain a work-life balance and tend to their own self-care in order to prevent burnout and emotional depletion. Often, the personalities that are drawn to the helping profession are those that will give tirelessly of themselves which makes them great at their jobs and a blessing to the community they serve. However, this personality trait can also have a negative side when a first responder not only gives of themselves endlessly at work but when, even outside of work, they continue to give of themselves in their community, their friendships, and their intimate relationships to the point of self-neglect. Unless proactive steps are taken to de-stress, practice self-care, and process stressful experiences on the job in a healthy way, the risk of burnout and emotional and relational distress for someone in a helping profession is high.

Self-care and moderation of giving may be a difficult concept for someone with a helper’s heart to hear. It can feel counter-intuitive or even selfish to take time for oneself when there are still so many people who need the help you can provide. However, as the saying goes, “you cannot pour from an empty glass”, and the cumulative effects of neglecting self-care and failing to consider the toll of work-related stress can be disastrous for the health and relationships of first-responders and their families. All too often the adverse effects of prolonged stress get turned inward on to home lives and relationships. Rather than having the home environment be a place of respite and replenishment, unresolved stress and burnout from work can lead to exhaustion, conflict, resentment between the individuals in the home, and can have deleterious effects on a marriage.

Taking the time to practice self-care, whether it be through exercise, meditation, stress-reducing activity, or conversation with a loved one is essential in maintaining emotional health and will have beneficial effects on ones' overall health and relationships. Additionally, seeking the assistance of a professional counselor or therapist can be instrumental in finding and maintaining a healthy work-life-love balance. Although the work environment of a first responder may never be stress-free, a good therapist can provide tips and real-life strategies on how to avoid bringing that stress into your home and relationships and prevent burnout.

No person or relationship is immune to the negative effects of stress. However, with pro-active stress management strategies, continued self awareness, and implementation of ongoing relational and self-care routines, the harmful effects of work stress can be moderated.

------This is Part One in a series on the risks of Stress in the First Responder Community for September 2016: Suicide Awareness Month----

Kristal DeSantis, M.A., LMFT-A, is the wife of a first-responder, and founder of Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center in Austin, TX

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