By DR. FRED HALL, LPC
QUESTION: How do I help my veteran or first responder deal with the stress and trauma they experience every day?
Your question is at the heart of many who are caring for and living with those on the front lines. First responders include police officers, firefighters, EMS/EMT, dispatchers, active military and veterans. Much of their day is filled with high-impact interpersonal relations with strangers and unknown situations and threats. They are almost always on high alert. They most likely find it hard to “turn it off” when they come home. This constant emotional and mental engagement, over time, is not healthy. Here are a few strategies for living with and caring for a first responder:
There is no better way to honor a first responder than in prayer. Whether it is offered in a religious service, privately, silently, or in a card or note, prayer can connect you and the first responder to God in a meaningful and productive way. Prayer helps the responder feel honored, understood, healed, rewarded, and cared for by God and you.
Small groups and support groups alike help those on the front lines tell their stories to likeminded people who share the same experiences and offer additional connection, community and resources. These groups can be spiritually based or based on the nature of the work they do. The support and encouragement that first responders and veterans receive can add value to their work and personal lives.
Recreation or vacation
Learning how to step away from the hustle and bustle of the daily grind can be therapeutic. Low-cost or high-end getaways can allow the mind, body and soul to refresh and recharge. These breaks from reality can range from organized sports to hiking to cruising the Caribbean. The simple goal is to help your loved one get away from the constant stress and strain of their job and focus on their health, hope and healing.
A mental check-in can be done officially or unofficially by friends, pastors, leaders or mental health professionals. It offers an opportunity for a person to discuss coping strategies and solutions to deal with the various stressors of being a first responder, as well as giving them education about individual mental wellness and balance.
Intervention and therapeutic services
First responders can often feel wary about reaching out for support. Solution-focused, practical, realistic and confidential therapy services often help those who suffer alone get the help they need in a caring and supportive environment. Therapy can be provided in person, or via telehealth for more privacy. There are various mediums for therapy, including individual, group, family, couples, or debriefing and psychoeducation.
The majority of the presenting problems first responders may be facing include anxiety or depressive disorders, trauma and stress-related disorders, substance use/abuse, grief, adjustment to life transitions, occupational stress, and physical illness and disability. First line intervention for these issues are: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), and Exposure Therapy.
CBT is an active, directive, structured approach to therapy which helps the client notice how they think, feel and act. Often negative assumptions about ourselves and others negatively affect our thinking, feelings and behavior. CBT helps a person monitor those negative thoughts and assumptions and replaces them with reality-based interpretations, positive emotions and healthy behaviors.
EMDR is a psychotherapy in which a person can diminish negative feelings and reactions when recalling a troubling memory or trauma. This is accomplished by bilateral stimulation, talking or thinking about the event, deep breathing, and reprocessing the emotions to be more realistic and adaptive to the situation at hand.
Exposure therapy is a cognitive approach which helps a person face and gain control over fear and distress that is overpowering the body and mind. This therapy must be done slowly and in stages so as not to overwhelm the body. Slow and progressive exposure includes imaginal (thinking about it) or in vivo (directly facing it).
Whatever level of intervention you offer, from prayer to therapy, let your loved one know they are loved, cared for and supported. Help them to see themselves not only for what they do but for who they are. Focus on their BEING, not their DOING. This is life-changing.