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Firefighter Mental Health: The Role of Stress and Tips to Manage It

Firefighter-Mental-HealthFirefighting is recognized as one of the most stressful jobs in Canada. Faced with daily challenges, firefighters must be prepared for the mental and physical changes that can be associated with high-stress careers.

According to Health Canada, individuals faced with chronic stress are more prone to:

  • Frequent and severe viral infections, like colds and influenza
  • Heart disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Depression and anxiety

Even more concerning is that according to the National Fire Protection Association, studies have found that as many as 37-percent of firefighters may exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), while only 9-percent of Canadians will suffer from PTSD in their lifetimes.

Fire departments are by necessity team-focused working environments. Fire departments need to work collectively to understand and support firefighter mental health, and directly address issues of stress and stress management.

Mental Health and Stress Management Support

Everyone wants mental health, but mental health problems are often negatively stigmatized. Recently, many organizations in Canada are working to combat the negative public perception of challenges with mental health.

The Working Mind for First Responders is a program offered by the Mental Health Commission of Canada, part of Health Canada. Through its program initiatives, The Working Mind for First Responders provides the tools and resources required to manage and support first responders who may be experiencing mental health issues.

“Mental health is something we all have, not something that is either present or absent,” said Keith Dobson, Ph.D., Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Calgary and one of the developers of The Working Mind for First Responders. “Learning to understand what contributes to good mental health and recognizing when you may need additional support is critical for improved stress and mental health management.”

“Stress can be thought of along the same lines as mental health. Individuals experience stress at different levels, and that’s okay,” says Arash Zohoor, M.D. and Co-founder of Inkblot Therapy. Inkblot provides one-on-one mental health counseling and life coaching via secure video and connects clients with therapists using an intelligent matching system.

“Stress by itself is not harmful,” states Zohoor. “In many circumstances, we thrive best when we are challenged. However, when a threshold is passed, that is when we can see the negative signs and symptoms associated with stress.”

What Are the Symptoms of Stress?

While every individual is different, there are some common signs and symptoms of stress. Stress can exist in many forms, from mild to chronic and acute to profound. “The nature of stress can often dictate one’s response to it,” says Dobson. Here are some of the more common signs of stress:

  • Physical: headaches, tiredness, increased sickness and poor health, sleep problems

  • Emotional: increased anxiety, irritability, sadness, indecisiveness

  • Behavioral: lack of interest, clumsiness, changes in eating habits, increased use of alcohol

  • On the Job: change in performance, isolation, tardiness

For firefighters, the nature of stress on the job can vary greatly, which is why having an understanding of the benefits of early detection and access to support is critical. Moreover, educating firefighters on the things they can do themselves or collectively to positively affect mental health, firefighter PTSD and stress are essential for long term success.

What can you do to help? Be aware of your surroundings and behavior and consider reaching out to colleagues if they exhibit any of the signs of stress, especially if this is a change from their normal level of functioning.

Firefighter Stress Management Tips

To maintain physical fitness on the job, firefighters routinely complete exercise and training programs. But practicing a skill to improve performance shouldn't be limited to physical fitness. In fact, mental health exercises and coping strategies should be practiced routinely as well.

Moreover, finding the good in life can often help combat the onset of the negative symptoms associated with stress. “When we work with patients, we make sure they have a clear sense of all of the good things in their life that make them feel connected to others and supported,” says Zohoor.

Fire departments are recognizing the importance of working collectively to support one another and initiating first responder mental health and stress management programs that can help those who may be struggling on the job. These initiatives vary from department to department but often include a combination of planning and preparation for stressful situations, visualization, positive self-talk and refocusing strategies.

Visualize the Outcome You Want

In competition, athletes often cite visualization as an important aspect of success.

  • If you can imagine yourself completing a task or achieving a specific desired result, this visualization can help train your mind and build in a sense of mental preparation for success.

  • When it comes to on-the-job challenges and high-demand situations, visualize the outcome you want to help stay positive and stay as calm as possible under pressure.

Stick with Routines and Plans

Routines and plans can help you feel mentally prepared even when thrown in unexpected circumstances.

  • You know what should be done and you know how to do it.

  • Routines and plans as you prepare for athletic competitions or even on the job are created to give you confidence in your performance and in your role in any given situation.

  • Set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time- limited) goals, to maximize your chance of success.

Positive Attitude and Self-Talk

You can do it. How you talk to yourself can make the difference between success and failure in competition and at the station.

  • Even when faced with challenges, maintain a positive attitude and positive self-talk to see yourself through difficult situations.

  • It can be easy to give up and think negatively, but if you practice positivity, it can help pull you through even the most difficult circumstances.

Develop Refocusing Strategies

Like anything in life, even with the greatest preparation and training, you may find yourself losing focus on the task at hand. Luckily, you can prepare your mind and your body for such scenarios.

  • If you see yourself losing focus or concentration, develop a strategy that works for you to regain control of the situation.

  • In competition, that may mean re-setting, starting over, or performing a specific physical movement to snap yourself back into ready-mode.

  • On the job, perhaps it is positive self-talk or walking away to take a deep breath, and returning to the task with improved clarity and focus.

Preparing for competition is one area where mental health is essential for performance. But applying that mental preparation on the job can be beneficial, too. Consider the benefits of mental preparation training to help you reach optimal performance.

Healthy Lifestyle Factors Can Aid In Stress Management

Improving mental health requires the mind and body to work together. Even with optimal mental preparation and focused mental health training, you still need to fuel your body the right ways to see success.

This includes maintaining a baseline of:

  • Appropriate physical fitness
  • Proper nutrition
  • Healthy sleep
  • Laughter and fun

“Good physical health can help you handle stress and prevent the negative side effects of stress. Staying focused on a healthy body and a healthy mind can often help you manage stress before any of the damaging effects can take place.” – Keltie-May Nicoll, Firefighter, Grande Prairie Fire Department, Alberta

Get a detailed look at the best ways to fuel your body in a free eBook: Canadian Firefighter Mental Health Guide.

How Turnout Gear Plays a Role in Mental Preparation and Success

Your turnout gear is designed to protect you in the line of duty, but it should also provide you with a sense of confidence that you will be protected, no matter what type of emergency situation you face.

  • Does your current turnout gear give you confidence in your ability and offer the flexibility and maneuverability to perform at your best?

  • Which flaws in your turnout gear design slow you down and reduce your efficiency?

If you have questions about the performance of your turnout gear, consider reaching out to the Lakeland Fire Service team to see Lakeland’s premium turnout gear.

Interested in learning more about mental preparation and how what you do in your downtime can help improve your on-the-job and on-the-course performance?

Download Lakeland’s Canadian Firefighter Mental Health Guide Now

Lakeland’s guide is filled with resources that stretch beyond just physical fitness, focusing on the importance of mental preparation and overall mental health.

Lakeland Stealth™ Turnout Gear is the ultimate in fire protection technology. Advanced ergonomics combined with cutting edge materials give you superior protection with maximum freedom of movement. Learn more about Lakeland Stealth and #GearUp with Lakeland.

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