First responders often have rewarding and fulfilling careers. But there can be a heavy price to pay. We desperately need people willing to be on the front lines, make life-and-death decisions, and bear witness to others as they suffer. Still, those first responders are flesh-and-blood humans. They have limits, too. Unfortunately, this career’s nature can make them less likely to take the breaks they should be taking.

As a result, first responders are frequently placed in potentially traumatic scenarios. This leaves them vulnerable to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Sometimes, it could make them vulnerable to compounding trauma or complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD).

What Is Compounding Trauma?

Generally speaking, trauma is a word used to refer to a single episode. Compounding or complex trauma involves a series of ongoing traumatic events. Such events can take place over a long period of time — like the career of a first responder, for example. After all, first responders are at a much higher risk of enduring traumatic events, suffering mental health problems, and attempting suicide.

Think about it, your average first responder could watch a child be injured one day but they still have to get for work again the following day. If that horror is followed by something similar, the C-PTSD pattern is forming. It’s relentless and can cause problems that aren’t immediately obvious.

Common Symptoms of Compounding Trauma

The signs listed below may also be present in cases of PTSD. In addition, what symptoms arise can very much depend on the person and the incident involved. That said, here are some red flags to watch for:

  • Flashbacks, nightmares, and intrusive thoughts
  • Anxiety
  • Self-blame, guilt, and shame
  • In some cases, avoidance of any reminders of the traumatic events
  • In other cases, a fixation on those details
  • Unable to regulate emotions
  • Hyper-vigilance
  • Memory loss
  • Detachment and dissociation
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Low self-esteem and highly self-critical

Specifically with first responders, compounding trauma causes them to downplay their accomplishments and only focus on the people they weren’t able to save or rescue. In addition, C-PTSD can leave those dealing with it in a vulnerable state that is conducive to self-medication and substance issues.

photo of a firefighter leaning down to pick up his equipmentWhy Does Compounding Trauma Go Ignored with First Responders?

A single large trauma is unmistakable and will draw attention to those on duty that day. With C-PTSD, the traumas — large and small — can feel routine. Not to mention, there’s a certain ethos that accompanies this career which leaves first responders less willing to complain. The world justifiably calls them heroes but this can make it feel “wrong” to display any perceived weaknesses. Even their co-workers might look askance at someone who complained openly about, say, nightmares.

What They Really Need

Supervisors who foster a supportive work environment

  • A strong commitment to daily self-care
  • Help with developing the self-awareness they need to identify when they need help
  • Family and friends who encourage them to create upbeat memories when they’re not at work
  • A collective effort — by everyone — to reject the stigma that anyone is immune to mental or physical distress

First responders can be at their best when they’re being encouraged to safely accept and express their humanness.

It’s Time to Ask for Help

It’s a delicate balance to perform heroics without punishing yourself. You’ll need support from your co-workers and management. But your relief may begin with therapy. In the privacy of a counselor’s office, you may feel more comfortable expressing doubts, fears, and problems. From this can grow a wider experience of being more open about your needs. In the long wrong, the healthier you are, the better you will be at helping others.

Reach out to learn more about trauma therapy and how it can help you.