Knowing When To Decompress

by John Whelan, Ph.D

John is a military veteran, psychologist, and author. He also hosts a blog at

Most first responders know that the job comes first. They love the adrenaline, singular focus, and the reward that comes from facing danger and prevailing. Focused, alert, externally focused, they often spend little time on ‘touchy-feely stuff’ like their own emotional health. Events, tragedies, and the struggles and strains of the job are usually filed away in the interests of remaining ramped up. Much of what we have been told about operational stress reactions and trauma focuses on major events but less known are the effects of cumulative stress – being worn down emotionally by the job over time and its effects on our brains. People may be much less aware of changes in themselves and their relationships when they occur over years and even decades. While there are many checklists to alert responders to signs of possible problems, in this post I outline others which are usually not discussed.

To begin, nobody questions the soldier, police officer, correctional officer, or the paramedic who is on top of everything; the 110% ones. We don’t see that putting everything into the job is often a way of simply hiding from life and ignoring things that may be bothering them. After all the go-to person can’t be depressed or struggling with their mental health. It can turn into a frustrating cycle of doing more but achieving less.

Nothing matters, same crap different day: The thing that often alerts people that something is off is the absence of feeling for anything or anyone – becoming robotic. The job requirement to suppress emotional reactions can come at a cost when people want to feel something like love or compassion for family members and they come up empty. It is one of the major challenges facing those on the front lines.

Just don’t care: There are all sorts of information about active thoughts about taking one’s own life as a risk but there is another version – Not caring if you live or die: “I just did not give a shit anymore about what happened to me … started taking stupid … I was a danger to my guys” (RCMP Veteran).

Can’t switch off – Soldiers and first responders thrive on adrenaline, but we are not equipped biologically to remain ramped up for extended periods. However, putting the brakes on to slow down is often easier said than done. “Besides my job, I do nothing, go home and smoke a joint … there’s days I don’t even leave the house” (Firefighter). Many people feel empty and become anxious/agitated – impending doom. The common solution is to turn to alcohol, sex, extreme physical activity, or arguments and even anger to fill the void.

Changes in sleep, thrashing about during sleep, night sweats, dreams, and flashbacks are all distressing to be sure. These are also signals that something is going on in your background that needs to be addressed, instead of the common strategy of ignoring these things and trying to stay ramped up. Getting things out in the open can be as easy as acknowledging and naming what you feel emotionally, without judging it, and finding someone you trust to have a ‘real’ conversation. It does not have to become so serious that the only solution is to see a professional.


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