Friday, February 16, 2024

Cumulative Trauma and First Responders


Cumulative Trauma is a term used to describe the psychological, emotional, and physical strain that comes from repeated exposure to traumatic events. For first responders, this can manifest in various ways, depending on the nature of their work. Law enforcement officers (LEOs), firefighters, and emergency medical service (EMS) all regularly face high-stress situations that most people can't even imagine.

First responders need to maintain emotional control in order to effectively help victims. This means that they may not always have the opportunity to fully process their own reactions and emotions during these traumatic events. Over time, this unresolved trauma can take its toll on the responder's mental well-being.

Unfortunately, this means the signs of cumulative trauma are often not acknowledged or addressed.

Indicators of Cumulative Trauma:

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Frequent headaches
  • Issues with sleep
  • Irritability or anger concerns
  • Social withdrawal
  • Frequent anxious or depressed
  • Relationship tension/problems reactions/thoughts
  • Thoughts of self-harm
  • Low motivation
  • Alcohol/drug use problems
  • Disciplinary problems at work

 Many first responders suffer in silence, believing that experiencing trauma is just part of the job. But as they progress through their careers, each traumatic event becomes like a heavy rock added to their mental load. And just like carrying a backpack full of rocks, eventually that heavy load becomes too much to bear.

How much can someone carry? The weight is different for each individual, as is how much each individual is capable of carrying.

This cumulative exposure to traumatic stress throughout the first responder’s career causes ongoing distress, often referred to as sub-threshold posttraumatic stress disorder (S-PTSD).

Sub-Threshold Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (S-PTSD) symptoms include irritability, sleep disruption, fatigue, anger, detachment, isolation, alcohol use increase, hypervigilance, startling, physical aches & pains, headaches and anxiety. Diminished quality of life can be ongoing and can contribute to a higher incidence of PTSD.

It's important for first responders to recognize when their work has begun to take a toll and seek support and professional help. It’s time to drop the stigma. Seeking help is not a sign of weakness, it's a necessary step towards healing and maintaining overall well-being. So please, take care of yourself, because you can’t save lives if yours is at risk. 


If you believe change is possible, you want to change, and you are willing to do the work, you absolutely CAN get your life back.”

Get your copy of The Soldier's Guide to PTSDThe Soldier's Workbook

or Acknowledge & Heal, A Women's-Focused Guide to PTSD

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