Medical Personnel, Cops, and Firefighters know how to steel themselves against their natural feelings. They have to. Who else would touch someone with a disease that could kill you and your loved ones? Run into a fire when everybody else is running the other way? Run toward gun shots? This ability to hyper focus on the task at hand is both a gift and a curse. The gift side of it allows for the rest of us to live a reasonably secure life. The gift side of it allows the cop to wrestle down an inflamed meth addict before he attacks a citizen. This is the job. These well trained first responders live in a complicated world. The downside, the curse if you will, is it takes a toll on the body, the psyche, the social life, and the family.
The ongoing stress of the job blows up in times of community crisis— long hours, separation from loved ones, an inability to ‘let go’, to work out, to joke around with the dark humor that makes the job easier. I saw this in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake. Some of the debriefings showed that much of the stress first responders felt was the inability to connect with their families. All of this is exacerbated by the loss of sleep, the continual facing of a situation that seems out of control, inability to have a regular meal, and the frequent upper administration flubs.
Based on that experience and 40 years of clinical work with first responders, here are a few thoughts on first responder psychological survival in this time of Covid-19.
Ten things that will get you in trouble:
- Lots of coffee to rev up; lots of booze to calm down.
- 24/7 on top of the news
- Anger at the family and friends that they ‘don’t get it.’ (Don’t understand the seriousness of the pandemic, or massively overreact to it.)
- Impatience and then pulling back from family and friends.
- Random sexual activities.
- Stopping the workouts.
- Eating everything in the room; eating nothing in the room.
- Taking on lots of extra duties.
- Ignoring your body.
- Not reaching out.
Ten things that will help:
- Work out.
- Reach out.
- Cut the family some slack. Takes civilians a while to catch up.
- Stop and check out what’s going on with your body.
- Take a break from the news.
- Pray, meditate, or simply breath— deeply and slowly.
- If you start to get into trouble (exhaustion, numbness, insomnia, feeling other’s trauma is yours), connect with your close friends, peer support folks, or your organization’s stress unit.
- Work with your family and/or friends to create a strategy for the worst case scenario, then let go.
- Remember your supervisors are stressed and confused like everybody else. Keep your expectations low. Be clear on your boundaries and role, but, paradoxically, add creativity to the work.
- Most importantly, remember that you can’t take care of anyone else unless you take care of yourself.
Go easy, folks