Suicide, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and many more emotional and stress-related problems plague the first-responder community. Hundreds of thousands of these brave public servants have unwittingly become victims of the professions they once loved. However, the suffering that results from a professional life of sacrifice and service can be prevented and mitigated.
As a thirty-year law-enforcement veteran, retired police captain, and police academy instructor, Captain Dan Willis has witnessed the damage of emotional trauma and has made it his personal mission to safeguard and enhance the wellness and wholeness of police officers, firefighters, EMTs, emergency-room personnel, and soldiers. Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder’s Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart, now completely revised and updated, offers field-tested expertise designed to be used by all first responders — and their families — to heal themselves and continue serving with compassion and strength.
Here we share an excerpt from the Revised Edition of Bulletproof Spirit, in which Willis explains the nine warning signs that a first responder is having difficulty processing the acute stress and trauma of the job.
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There are numerous specific warning signs that should alert you, as an emergency first responder, and your family members to the fact that you are becoming a victim of your profession. These warning signs and associated problems never simply go away on their own. Instead, they progressively, insidiously, worsen over time if not corrected. You need to become self-aware, realize when you are displaying these danger signs, and then choose to proactively address the problem in a constructive way, before it becomes too late and the problem irreparably harms the quality of your personal and professional life.
Any one of these warning signs is a serious indication that you are having difficulty processing the acute stress and trauma of the job. These warning signs do not typically occur in a progression; any or all can occur if you have not worked to bulletproof your spirit.
Over time there is a natural tendency, in all first-responder jobs, for the individual to become increasingly isolated. This involves withdrawing — preferring the company of work colleagues or being alone to associating with other friends, family, and their related activities. You develop the tendency to disengage, not wanting to make decisions away from work, and preferring not to be involved with others — even spouses and children. Eventually, you can become distant and reclusive. Close work bonds are desirable, but you need the counterbalance of other friends more than you need anyone else. Hanging out exclusively with first-responder colleagues tends to reinforce any negative aspects of the profession’s worldview. “Outside” friends will help keep you from developing a victim mentality (feeling victimized by work, by society, the agency, and so on) and also from thinking everyone is a criminal. As we isolate ourselves, we increasingly become disconnected from others, uncaring, disengaged with life, and disinterested. As we become so affected, we tend to have problems maintaining close, personal relationships and relating with others.
When affected, you will develop a shorter-than-usual fuse, fly off the handle for seemingly insignificant reasons, respond to questions in one-word sentences, usually say you are “fine” just to stop any further conversation, and keep everyone near you walking on eggshells for fear of how you will react. You may seem to be on edge, restless, and agitated. This occurs because the daily traumas of our professions tend to erode our resiliency, the ability to cope and to respond to things calmly and rationally. It is essential to let your life partner know how important it is for him or her to tell you how you may be changing. It is your job to listen to them and create an atmosphere where they will feel comfortable giving you much-needed feedback. This will help you to keep from damaging your relationship. Chapter 10 explains in detail how a life partner plays a vital role in the emotional survival of a first responder.
3. Difficulty Sleeping
Having difficulty consistently getting a good night’s sleep — either because of sleep interruptions several times each night or because you are only capable of sleeping for a few hours — is a sign that you are not effectively processing stress.
When seriously affected, you begin to develop a pattern of taking out your stress and frustration on others, often those you care about most. You will tend to try to create a buffer around yourself, a safe zone where people will just leave you alone. You’ll use anger to control others, to keep them at a distance, and to avoid taking a real look at yourself to examine what is actually going on inside.
5. Emotional Numbness, Apathy, Disengagement with Life
Becoming emotionally numb is inevitable, at least initially, and you’ll need to consistently work to prevent it from overwhelming you. The job will naturally tend to make you want to shut down emotionally as a way to no longer feel the frustration, stress, pressures, and emotional pain of the job. However, this inevitably leads to seriously damaged relationships at home.
6. Lack of Communication
As you increasingly withdraw, you will tend to make the mistake of keeping everything inside. This becomes serious because, as your communication skills diminish, you will refuse to talk about how work is affecting you. Feelings of depression, anxiety, helplessness, anger, fear, and other negative emotions will then intensify.
7. Cynicism, Distrust, and Loss of Work Satisfaction
If any of the previously mentioned warning signs appear and are not addressed, you will likely become highly dissatisfied at work, extremely cynical, and distrustful of everyone in the world. This cynicism and negative outlook will send you into a downward spiral that eventually affects every aspect of your life.
Ignoring any of these warning signs eventually can lead to clinical depression. Left untreated, this may worsen and become potentially severe depression, resulting in substance abuse, broken families and lives, and a host of other debilitating problems, up to and including suicide.
9. Drinking as a Perceived Need and Other Addictive/Compulsive Behaviors
Drinking, or compulsively consuming other substances, because of a perceived need or by habit is a major warning sign. Alcohol abuse among US police officers is about double that of the general population, with 23 percent of them seriously abusing alcohol. The military is even worse, with one study showing that 39 percent of veterans screened positive for probable alcohol abuse. Studies of firefighters demonstrate that 29 percent of active-duty firefighters have possible or probable problems with alcohol abuse. Drinking because of a need or habit tends to only intensify already serious problems and emotional issues, and it delays the resolution of real problems. If you are experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (chapter 7) and you drink, the chances of killing yourself increase tenfold. Alcohol consumption is one of the most damaging behaviors for first responders.
At least 20 percent of first responders will experience at least one serious addiction at some point in their career — to drinking, prescription pills or illegal drugs, gambling, sex, pornography, or many other maladaptive behaviors. If your brain becomes injured by the daily traumas of your job (PTSD), you become prone to develop an addiction. Any compulsive behavior is a major red flag of unreleased and damaging traumas.
All these warning signs present a sharp contrast to the outlook of the idealistic, positive, and enthusiastic officer who graduated from the police academy with high hopes; the firefighter who joined his engine company bursting with pride and a desire to serve; or the soldier who dreams of protecting her country. Any of these symptoms can and will become debilitating enough to change a first responder into someone their family no longer recognizes, unless they do the work to bulletproof their spirit to survive emotionally by adhering to the concepts described in this book.
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Dan Willis served as a police captain, homicide detective, wellness unit coordinator, and SWAT commander. He is a graduate of San Diego State University and the FBI National Academy. He currently instructs nationwide on trauma, PTSD, and the process of healing. He lives in San Diego, CA. Find out more about his work at www.FirstResponderWellness.com.
Excerpted from the book Bulletproof Spirit, Revised Edition. Copyright © 2014, 2019 by Dan Willis.