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Why Should We Care About Stress? What's The Big Deal?

October 07, 2001
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Why Should We Care About Stress? What's The Big Deal?

by Robin Thomas-Riddle, Ph.D.

As emergency service personnel, we find ourselves dealing with other peoples’ troubles on a daily basis. We are told from the time we enter the academy that stress and trauma are "just part of the job." We come to believe that if we admit that things about the job are, in fact difficult we are "less than" as cops or fire fighters, or paramedics, or trauma doctors or nurses. We are just supposed to respond to the scene, deal with the issues at hand and move on "down the road" to the next call or situation.

While that is one possible scenario, I am here to tell you that is not realistic. As emergency service personnel you see things on a daily or weekly basis that most people never see. You are exposed not only to personal danger on a regular basis but you respond to and deal with other peoples’ trauma a hundred times fold.

As you are attempting to help people with their problems, you become a secondary witness to their trauma and hardship. All of those situations and the myriad of circumstances that you respond you take their toll.

Why should we care about the effects of stress and trauma on our lives? What difference does it make if we take the time to understand how those experiences can affect our responses to ourselves, our spouses and friends, and our children? The simple reason is because stress and trauma cause emotional, psychological and biological consequences to us and in turn affect our families and our children.

The basic premise of any profession associated with emergency service is training and being prepared. It increases personal safety, competence and efficiency. It makes the job more enjoyable and less stressful. Trauma response education and training gives understanding and additional tools to help us deal with the situations that we encounter on the job.

Research was done looking at the effects of life, work and traumatic stress on burnout and cynicism in police officers. The results indicated that as the effects of work stress and traumatic stress increased cynicism and burnout also increased. The significance of that correlation is important because of the behaviors and other consequences associated with those characteristics.

The more burnt out and cynical an individual there is additional stress, anger and aggression. There are also increases in discipline problems, absenteeism, apathy, relational difficulties with family and friends, increased divorce, and alcohol and drug abuse. Work and traumatic stress also contribute to an increase in physical maladies (heart attacks, ulcers, etc.) and psychological consequences (e.g., depression, anxiety) including higher incidence of suicide.

We know that when we are stressed we don’t deal as well with situations. We don’t have the energy, emotionally or physically to deal with things as efficiently or productively. Through training and education we can come to understand the effects of stress and trauma and what are common, normal, responses to those traumatic situations.

Doing that prior to the actual "critical incident" gives the emergency service person information as to what to expect and how to deal with those circumstances in an attempt to minimize the adverse effects of those experiences. If there is an understanding of the trauma response it helps to "normalize" the experience and gives the individual information to be able to assess whether or not they need some outside help in dealing with a particular work/life experience.

A trauma is any event, which attacks a person’s mind and breaks down his or her defense system with the potential to significantly disrupt one’s life. Typically a traumatic event is sudden, perceived to be powerful and outside the range of normal human experience; meaning outside a "regular" person’s experience. That means every emergency service person is subjected with those experiences more or less on a daily basis.

The significance of this is life, work, and traumatic stressors are cumulative. In addition, we all have only a certain amount of emotional energy to deal with the stressors to which we are subjected. As we are exposed to traumatic incidences we are exposed to the potential of post-traumatic stress. The importance of that has many detrimental consequences such as potential personality changes, biological and neurochemical changes, and emotional and thought disturbances.

Be Safe.

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