People serving in the Public Safety sector are used to acronyms. Codes for various situations, responses, and treatments exist in every department. If you transfer from one department to another, it can almost feel like you have landed in a foreign country. One acronym that everyone is familiar with these days is PTSD-Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. While many people have heard the term, there is a misconception about what PTSD represents.
PTSD is the result of a single or chronic exposure to a traumatic event. This event(s) can range from car accidents, shootings, abuse, rape, or any situation where you have been involved in that threatens you or someone else with harm. For first responders, PTSD can result from witnessing horrific injuries, entering a volatile scene that presents an imminent threat, or even an attack or injury to yourself or your partner. PTSD can occur on your first day at the job or one day away from your retirement.
The misconception surrounding PTSD is that it is just “something you feel” after experiencing a horrible situation. This isn’t the case. Most first responders are familiar with the body’s “fight or flight” system. It is a physiological reaction that enables your body to react in stressful and threatening situations. After the threat has subsided, the physiological changes return to normal everyday status, because the body is no longer in the threatening situation. When PTSD is truly in effect, this “fight or flight” effect doesn’t go away and causes a continual feeling of stress, fear, and anxiety¹.
Signs and symptoms vary from person to person and at different stages. The three recognized categories are²:
- Re-experiencing symptoms
- Avoidance symptoms
- Hyperarousal symptoms
In the first category, bad dream or flashbacks can interrupt daily life. In the second, changes may be made to avoid similar situations (change of career, driving a new route, etc.). In the third category, a person experiencing PTSD can be continually anxious and have difficulty sleeping. Symptoms can take years to appear in some cases.
So what are the treatment options for someone experiencing PTSD? Many different therapy programs exist and have provided people with help. One of the most recent therapy options that is gaining recognition and solid results is EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. Don’t let the name scare you or imagine some very technical and complicated process.
EMDR was developed by American psychologist Francine Shapiro in the late 1980’s³. The goal with this particular therapy is to change the way the disturbing thoughts affect the person suffering with PTSD and give a resolution to the event. If they can stop feeling anxious, frightened, even paralyzed by the thoughts, then they can resume normal functioning in day-to-day life.
This is not an overnight process. Discussions take place with a specialist in EMDR and preparations are taken. The actual EMDR involves using eye movement and taps or tones to guide the patient to develop new associations with the traumatic event(s), in an attempt to rewire the memory connections. Again, discussions take place prior to this step to help the patient identify the event(s), and they must acknowledge the effects that they experienced. Then as the treatment proceeds, new associations take place that assure the patient they are no longer in that same place or situation⁴.
Shapiro states that results are very impressive after three 90 minute sessions⁵. The American Psychiatric Association and Department of Defense and Veteran’s Affairs are recommending EMDR as a valid therapy option. Shapiro offers research and clinical trials that show EMDR to be very effective and provide quicker results in some cases, and less need for detailed focus on the traumatic event⁶. Another positive benefit of EMDR is that it is much more cost efficient than traditional therapy options.
So you are suffering from PTSD. Does this mean your life as you know it will never be the same? Every day each of us have experiences, encounters, and emotions that alter and change us. Whether the change is minimal or large, these changes take place. But when these changes affect our ability to function or to enjoy life, it is time to seek help. After a traumatic event or chronic exposure, your life won’t be the same. But you CAN reach a place where you take back your life, passions, and even joy. Reaching out for help as a first responder can be intimidating. As first responders, we are the ones that everyone else looks to for help. By reaching out, we may think it shows our weakness. Guess what? Every one of us has a weakness. No one human can experience a traumatic event and emerge unaffected.
If you or someone close to you is suffering from PTSD, there is help and options available. EMDR is showing impressive results in a timely and cost-effective manner. If you decide to explore the EMDR option, make sure you find a clinician who is specifically trained in the EMDR therapy method. Ask for their experience using the process and overall success rate. EMDR is not the right choice for everyone but is worth investigating. With EMDR, the effects of the traumatic events can be lessened and in some cases even distanced, allowing you to get back into living your life.
⁶ Shapiro F. The Role of Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy in Medicine: Addressing the Psychological and Physical Symptoms Stemming from Adverse Life Experiences. The Permanente Journal. 2014;18(1):71-77. doi:10.7812/TPP/13-098.
Mark W Lamplugh Jr
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He is the Chief Executive Officer with 360 Wellness Inc. (www.360wellness.org) and Executive Director of Frontline Responder Services (www.frontlinerehab.com) with Sprout Health Group (www.sprouthealthgroup.com).
Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. He has helped hundreds of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.