Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD

 

PTSD develops differently from person to person. While the symptoms of PTSD most commonly develop very soon after or even days following the traumatic event, it can sometimes take weeks, months, or even years before they appear. PTSD is commonly associated with the trauma suffered after serious injury to oneself or another, another’s death, or witnessing traumatic events.

 

A new study reveals that 90% of firefighters are living and working with PTSD. The study, conducted by Dr. Marc Lougassi, himself a firefighter, of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, found 90% of their professional firefighters showed full or partial symptoms of the mental health condition. Dr Lougassi explains: “Professional firefighters are frequently exposed to extreme stress during their work in emergency situations. In addition to the physical challenges of firefighting they must evacuate burned and injured victims or bodies. Their involvement in traumatic events exposes them not only to the pressures stemming from the traumatic event itself, but also to post-traumatic emotional expressions that result in secondary traumatization. As far as Israeli firefighters are concerned, there has been no documented evidence of PTSD prevalence, despite the fact that they are exposed to everyday Fire and EMS events, but the additional trauma such as war and terror strikes.”

 

Symptoms of PTSD

The symptoms of PTSD can be quite extensive, but will fall into one of three categories: intrusive memories, avoidance or emotional numbing and anxiety and increased emotional arousal.

Intrusive memory symptoms include reliving the traumatic event through flashbacks or nightmares.

The second group is avoidance or emotional numbing. These symptoms are exhibited when the individual consciously avoids trying to think or talk about the event, discontinues activities/hobbies that were previously enjoyed, easily forgets things, has trouble concentrating and cannot maintain a close relationship with others.

Anxiety and increased emotional arousal symptoms involve the person being highly irritable, displaying outbursts of anger or other self-destructive behavior, suffering insomnia and hearing or seeing things that are not present.

All of these symptoms of PTSD can come and go, but can be triggered by any reminders of the stressful event that the person experienced.

There are three main types of symptoms (From Helpguide.org) and they can arise suddenly, gradually, or come and go over time:

  1. Re-experiencing the traumatic event. This may include upsetting memories, flashbacks, and nightmares, as well as feelings of distress or intense physical reactions when reminded of the event (sweating, pounding heart, nausea, for example).
  2. Avoiding reminders of the trauma. You may try to avoid activities, places or thoughts that remind you of the trauma or be unable to remember important aspects of the event. You may feel detached from others and emotionally numb, or lose interest in activities and life in general, sensing only a limited future for oneself.
  3. Increased anxiety and emotional arousal. These symptoms include trouble sleeping, irritability or outbursts of anger, difficulty concentrating, feeling jumpy and easily startled, and hypervigilance (on constant “red alert”).

 

Other common symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Guilt, shame, or self-blame
  • Substance abuse
  • Feelings of mistrust and betrayal
  • Depression, hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts and feelings
  • Physical aches and pains

Professional treatment for PTSD relieves symptoms by helping you deal with the trauma you’ve experienced. Rather than avoiding the trauma and any reminder of it, a doctor or therapist will encourage you to recall and process the emotions you felt during the original event in order to reduce the powerful hold the memory has on your life.

 

You will also:

  • Explore your thoughts and feelings about the trauma
  • Work through feelings of guilt, self-blame, and mistrust
  • Learn how to cope with and control intrusive memories
  • Address problems PTSD has caused in your life and relationships

 

Normally the articles I write are from a lot of experience and opinions from those experiences. This article is different because I cited some expert opinions on PTSD, something that I am not. I do believe I suffer from, as Dr. Marc Lougassi would say, partial symptoms of PTSD. For the most part they aren’t serious. There are three or four other firefighters and myself who have breakfast three times a week and there we re-hash a lot of calls we have had and how they made us feel. I believe that helps all of us a lot. I cannot, however, imagine how someone with full PTSD symptoms feels or what they go through day and night. To believe that firefighters and ems providers are unaffected by what they encounter every day is like believing someone can walk thru water without getting wet.

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So when someone comes to you as their leader with a problem they are having, don’t let the first thing you say be “I know how you feel,” because you don’t. After that, I only hear about 10% of what the other person has to say. Just listen to what they have to say. Offer the appropriate avenues for help if you have them. And if your department or city doesn’t, then start the process of creating a pathway for these personnel to follow to get help.

 

I don’t know how those with full PTSD feel. I only know it is real – and fire departments and cities across the country need to start rethinking what can actually injure our firefighters, physically and mentally.

There is hope. Recently Winnipeg announced new legislation that will make it easier for emergency personnel with potential for PTSD to get help faster. Ontario has passed legislation that will create a presumption that PTSD diagnosed in first responders is work-related, leading to faster access to resources and treatment. Unfortunately it is slow in coming to the United States, but we are getting there.

I put my heart and soul into my work and have lost my mind in the process. – Van Gogh

 

Stay Safe – Everyone Goes home

 

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So I have really never considered I have had PTSD, but some of the symptoms have been coming more evident as the years go by. I had started to notice I was a different person that what I can remember of myself before the start in public safety. I have always been a champion of mental health services, but have never really taken advantage of them myself. That all changed this week.

As my fiance and I go through pre-marriage counselling, I noticed our counselor had several books on EMDR. For those who aren’t familiar, EMDR stands for eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. I had heard of it through a chance meeting of another firefighter in Upstate New York.

I met Scott Geiselhart, a firefighter from Minnesota, was the Keynote Speaker for the New York State Fire Chief’s Association Conference. He spoke to us about who and what we do. He explained his story and how EMDR changed his life. At the moment, I didn’t really think about it at the time.

So as my fiance and I were sitting in the counselor’s office, I asked him about his EMDR books. He went on to explain how EMDR works and the studies on the benefits. I then proceed to explain some of my symptoms I have noticed and my fiance have noticed. Our counsel thought it would be pretty beneficial to try the EMDR treatment.

So, this week I started my first EMDR treatment. It was quite an experience and I really was nervous on how this was going to work. So we started out talking about what I wanted to get out of our therapy. I said I’d like to become less stressed and anxious would be nice. We then start to talk about some of the calls and incidents that had left a lasting image in my mind. We finally start to narrow down what we would work on during this first session. One incident that had left a heavy burden on my mind was a suicide we had when a juvenile shot himself in the head with a large caliber rifle. I will spare you the details, since this article really isn’t about the war stories. I go on to explain how the incident made me feel about and how I felt about myself afterwards.

My counselor makes some notes and we take a break as he gets the EMDR light bar set up. So, the way this treatment works is you are placed in front of a light bar that goes back and forth while listening to an audio que. The goal is to just follow the light with your eyes and that movement helps bring the brain into a RIM sleep like cycle. During RIM sleep your brain is able to process and file memories, so this treatment help process previously unprocessed memories. Now I will say that this treatment doesn’t make the incident go away, but puts you in peace of what happened.

So my treatment starts, my counselor reads me a statement “I feel like I have no compassion for others and I am cold to others”. I head to rate the statement on a scale of 0 to 10 where 0 was untrue and 10 was true. To be honest, as I started to bring up these memories, I really felt like that was 100% true. He marks down the score and he starts the light bar. I can remember thinking, “Is this going to work” and “Am I doing this right”?

As I continue my treatment, after a few minute my counselor asks me what I am feeling in a couple words. As I give him my responses, he writes them down. Then he asks the previous statement and want me to re-rate it. This go around, I feel better and rate it a 6-7. We continue on and as we continue a sense of clam comes across me. I feel more relaxed and at peace with the feeling I had with the incident. 

The he asks a final time fro me to re-rate the previous statement, and to be truthfully honest I felt it wasn’t as true as I felt in the beginning of the session. I felt better about the whole incident. I did have other memories come up, but I really felt much better about how this incident went and there was a relief from what had been bothering me. I can’t say that this has cured all my PTSD symptoms, but it has definitely helped.

I can say this about PTSD, don’t think that you are alone in this. Just because you only have a few symptoms doesn’t mean you have to fight this alone. I encourage anyone who is having problems to seek help. It’s ok to not be ok. Reach out to someone especially if you feel like hurting yourself. We are all in this together and we are each other’s keepers. Don’t hesitate to reach out to someone close to you or anyone, even me. I hope that if you read this you found it interesting or helpful. I will continue to update as my treatment continues. Until then, take care of yourself and your fellow brothers/sisters. We don’t want to lose you or anyone else to suicide.

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