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Psychological Impact of Working as a Firefighter

Fire service personnel witness traumatic events everyday and traditionally, a stigma existed, leading many firefighters to keep their feelings about these events to themselves. Thankfully, things are now changing.

Not many people know about the day-to-day job of fire service personnel. Believe it or not, less than 5% of calls received by the fire department are fires. The vast majority of calls – 75% or more – are medical emergencies. This includes severe car accidents, natural disasters, substance overdoses, heart attacks, etc. This means members of the fire service witness horrifying, gruesome, and life-threatening events everyday. As the saying goes in many fire departments: “Your worst day is our everyday.” 

Traditionally, however, the fire department has been stoic about these experiences. Psychological suffering was seen as weak-mindedness and emotional turmoil was stigmatized. Those who struggled with cumulative tragedy were shunned and labeled as people who couldn’t cut it to be a firefighter.  

However, the culture in the fire service is changing thanks to recent research shedding light on the emotional toll of these experiences. Compared to the general population, fire service personnel have higher rates of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and problems related to alcohol use. One gut-wrenching study in 2017 found more firefighters died by suicide than in the line of duty.

These findings led to important initiatives across the state of Florida. The Florida Firefighter Health and Safety Collaborative, for example, offers two-day workshops specific for behavioral health clinicians. These workshops aim to increase clinician awareness and competence in working with firefighters.

Although awareness is key to initiate change in firefighter psychological wellbeing, there is still much work to be done. If you or a loved one is a first responder struggling with stress, irritability, sadness, and difficulties connecting with those around them, know that there are clinicians out there who can help. It’s time to change the culture around the fire service. It’s okay to not be okay.

How to Be Kind to Yourself (+ Top 10 List)

In honor of Random Acts of Kindness Day, Dr. Isoma shares his own struggle with being kind to himself and shares a list of ways to treat yourself with more kindness.

This has been a rough first month of the New Year for me. My wife and I are expecting our first baby, we just opened our new practice, and we are still putting our new home together. I know this all sounds really exciting, and it is. But, at times, it can also be stressful and scary.

What if my practice fails? Am I going to be a good father? What if I can’t manage everything? These questions constantly bombard my mind. Then, my inner critic starts up: “You’re too disorganized,” “You’re in over your head,” “You don’t even know how to hold a baby – you’re going to be a terrible dad.” The underlying message tends to be the same: “You’re not good enough.”

Perhaps you can relate to some version of the “I’m not good enough” story. When it shows up, it can make us feel terrible about ourselves and bring us down. Most of the time, we work really hard to push this story away, argue with it, or distract ourselves from it. But it always comes back, typically when we feel at our worst.

Sometimes it can feel like our mind is our worst enemy – like a bully just looking to kick us while we’re down. But if you take a closer listen, you might notice that this so-called bully is actually trying to give you some important information. 

Our brains evolved to keep us safe from perceived dangers, connect with others, and help us grow. Being able to anticipate failures, avoid pitfalls, and drive our system into fight-or-flight mode increases our chances at continued survival. This means that even the most self-critical information is for the purpose of safety and advancement.

Think of it this way – It wouldn’t be all that helpful if our minds gave us only positive affirmations. What would happen if my mind only told me I’m going to be the best dad in the world? (Yes, that’s what my future mug will say.) What’s motivating me to learn how to properly hold a baby, take parenting classes, or even attend to my child’s needs? Without my inner critic, I would think I’m already awesome at everything, even if I’m really not.

In some ways, our “negative” mind is more like a close friend without a filter rather than a vindictive bully. Most of us want our friends to let us know when we mess up, so we can learn and grow. The problem with this friend is he has no idea how to say things in a “nice” way. Still, you know he has your best interest in mind.

So, how do we deal with this filter-less friend who really just wants the best for us? For starters, notice what isn’t working – telling your inner friend to shut up, arguing with him, ignoring him, or drowning him out with the fifth consecutive episode of your favorite show. Instead, I invite you to do something completely different – listen to him.

If you are willing, even for two minutes, listen from a different perspective. When your inner friend says, “I’m not good enough,” what do you think he/she is really trying to tell you? If it’s possible that their words are intended to keep you safe, would you want to treat him/her differently?

I’m not saying you have to like this inner friend all the time – I know I don’t. You don’t even HAVE to be kind to him/her. But see what it might be like to stop fighting with him/her all the time and invite them to join your journey. If you would like to learn specific ways to treat yourself with more kindness, here’s a list of my top 10 recommendations.

10 WAYS TO BE KIND TO YOURSELF

  1. Give yourself a hug. If it feels awkward and weird, you’re doing it right. Give it another 10 seconds and see what it was like to really hug yourself.
  2. Do the activity that makes you feel most connected to life. For me, going to the beach is when I feel whole, even if I’m also feeling hurt.
  3. Give yourself permission to feel whatever you feel, even if it’s unpleasant. There is a big difference between fighting against painful feelings and being willing to have them.
  4. Chances are you are doing the best you can with what you have. Gently remind yourself of that and see what happens when you can let your best be good enough.
  5. See if you can remember a time during your childhood when you felt hurt. Bring to mind what you looked like during that time. Then, imagine you were able to meet this childhood version of yourself. What do you think this small child needed back then? Are you willing to give that child what he or she needs in this moment, if only in your imagination?
  6. Re-introduce yourself to your inner voice. Spend 30 seconds allowing your mind to just chatter on and see if you can really listen to what the mind is saying, as if this is a close friend you haven’t seen in years.
  7. Try out some of the self-compassion exercises by Kristen Neff.
  8. Imagine someone you care deeply for in their most painful moments. How would you want to be there for that person? What are some things you might say or do when you are with that person? Now, see if you can replace that someone with yourself.
  9. When you notice your mind criticizing you, no need to try fighting with it. Believe it or not, this is your mind’s way of letting you know something important is happening. Picture this inner critic as an infant or toddler trying to get its needs met. How does this change your relationship with your self-critic?
  10. If you’re anything like me when trying these exercises, the mind still judges and criticizes, like a bully who just won’t give up. The secret about bullies – they’re usually the ones who need to be cared for the most. So, when you notice the bully show up, give them some love too.

Fatherhood: Expectations vs Reality [Guest Blog]

In this guest blog, Dr. Kevin Hyde discusses his experience in becoming a father, and the struggles and feelings that come along with it.

I don’t know about you, but before I became a father I had visions of wrestling, playing catch in the backyard, and silly dad jokes that make everyone roll their eyes. As the father of two girls under the age of four, I can definitively say that, while those things have all happened, the reality of fatherhood has been very different from my original expectations.

For example, I came up with this blog idea as I was trying to shovel yogurt into the mouth of a two-year-old as quickly as possible so we could make it to church on time. Spoiler alert: we were late. Not in my original plan…

I know that I’m not alone in having real life laugh in the face of my dreams and expectations. In fact, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb to say that we’ve ALL had that happen at some point in our lives. Parenting, and fatherhood in particular, just tends to be one of the most eye-opening examples.

We may or may not recognize it, but we all enter fatherhood with an agenda. Either we want to emulate our parents… or we want to be sure that our kids get a better experience than we had as children. But the experiences we remember that helped form our expectations of parenthood typically come from memories during grade school, pre-adolescent, or teenage years. We can’t remember what our parents were like during early childhood, and that’s probably a good thing!

The first thing we are faced with as fathers is how to love a wrinkly potato that provides no response other than to let you know that you have no idea what you’re doing so you should hand the spud back over to mommy. More than once I questioned whether I was ever going to figure out how to feed or comfort the baby.

But the good news is I was a diaper changing champion. It was like I was on the pit crew for the Daytona 500, which meant I got all sorts of accolades from those around us. That’s right, gentlemen, you change a diaper and you get accolades while your wife is lucky if she isn’t criticized for not having organically certified, reusable cotton baby wipes on her 24/7.

I never expected that it would be a struggle to try and connect with my child during the early months, but it was. My wife was the comforter, the source of food, and the one who recognized which cry meant which need was unmet. I was jealous of how close she was with our child… but I couldn’t tell that to anyone because, “men are tough, they figure things out.” Things would’ve been a little easier without that preconceived notion because I could’ve learned that I wasn’t alone. Now I know that many men feel exactly as I did.

I wasn’t actually alone, it just felt that way because my pride kept me from opening up to others!

Reality started matching up better with my expectations as our oldest turned one and became a serious daredevil who LOVED me throwing her up in the air, wrestling all around the house, and letting her climb trees in the backyard. My wife actually got jealous of the connection the baby and I developed during this period… so she demanded a second child.

Hey, for number two at least I was prepared for those early months, right? HA!

You’re probably beginning to notice a pattern. I hold some expectations in my mind of how something should go, and I end up shocked/frustrated/disappointed/hurt/angry/etc. Not a very fun pattern to be stuck in!

So what do I do about it now that I’ve got two toddlers?

I try very hard to stay engaged in the present moment. Granted it’s not always easy. I find my mindfulness meditation practice ebbs and flows just like my exercise routine. But I absolutely recognize a connection between feeling less stressed, anxious, and irritable when I’m more mindfully present with my family.

Even just five minutes of mindfulness meditation each day helps me respond better to the inevitable frustrations that arise from spilled milk, sibling arguments, or plans that need to be changed because of unexpected illness. I feel more fulfilled when I’m able to stay focused on playing with my kids, or really observing them while playing on their own in the backyard… instead of looking at my phone.

So if you are a fellow father, I would challenge you to put down the phone, turn off the TV, or turn away from whatever occupies most of your attention and see what happens when you truly engage with your kids in the present moment. You might find the kids obey a little more or even that your wife feels a little more seen. And a pretty nice bonus is that when your kids are grown up and out of the house, you’ll have no regrets about not spending enough time with them. Living out your values is never a bad thing.

Whether a situation meets your expectations or not, or whether another person would call the situation “good” or not, doesn’t make a lick of difference in what you and your family define as quality time. Don’t let those unexpectedly enjoyable moments continue to pass you by. Reality should be the only expectation.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Kevin Hyde is a clinical psychologist licensed to practice in the state of Florida. He resides in Pinellas County with his wife and two young daughters. In his spare time, Dr. Hyde enjoys relaxing at the beach with family, watching Nationals baseball, baking bread, and keeping up with current events. He founded Pinellas Anxiety Specialists with the intention of providing high quality anxiety therapy to reduce the stress and anxiety that so many cope with on a daily basis.

Loneliness During the Holidays

The holidays can be a time of immense sadness, heartache and loneliness for some people – and that’s okay. How do you make it through the holidays when you don’t feel full of joy?

It’s December, which means the jingles are jingling, the carolers are caroling, and the “holiday spirit” is in the air. For some, this can be a time of joy, love and connection. For others, this can be a time of immense sadness, heartache and loneliness.

I know all too well both extreme ends of this spectrum. On one hand, this time of year brings me closer to a sense of deep connection with my family and friends, and pushes me to be more giving and kind to others. At the same time, I miss family who live out of town, I long for loved ones who passed away, and I experience nostalgia of a pastime that is no longer.

The holiday cheer that our culture puts on a pedestal doesn’t make these moments of loneliness any better. Joy, love and everlasting happiness are shoved down our throats so forcefully, it can feel like we’re broken if we don’t feel these emotions at every moment of the season. Happiness sells, and so it’s marketed as goods and services that we must buy and own.

Unfortunately, this marketing gives the impression that to be a normal, everyday human, we must act like a Who from Whoville – smiling, singing and dancing with overwhelming happiness. The problem is, as humans, sometimes we actually feel like the Grinch – castaway to the mountains, doomed to only watch as everyone else gets to experience love and connection but us.

My takeaway from the classic Dr. Seuss story is these two emotional experiences – joy (Whoville) and loneliness (The Grinch) – do not need to live separately. Eventually, rather than trying to fight off The Grinch, Whoville was willing to accept him as part of their holiday experience. Similarly, you can simultaneously love the holiday, take part in the festivities, and at the exact same time, feel sadness, grief, stress and loneliness.

It’s okay if you don’t “live up” to the holiday hype. You are allowed to feel exactly what you feel, without exception. If you are feeling lonely, rather than trying to make yourself feel better, try treating the feeling the same way Whoville treated The Grinch at the end of the story – open yourself up to loneliness and continue to do what matters most to you during the season.

Remember, feeling lonely and being alone is not the same thing. In fact, feeling lonely is an indicator that connecting with others is something that matters to you. If that’s the case, let loneliness be the kind reminder to reach out to friends, family, partners, or even strangers. Go to that holiday party, or create one of your own, and take loneliness with you like The Unwelcome Party Guest.

This holiday season, don’t buy into the myth that you must be happy to be normal. You also don’t have to banish yourself into reclusion if you feel down or lonely. When you feel joy, great! Do all of those things you love to do when you feel happy!

And, when you feel lonely – that’s okay too. Notice, you can still do all of the things you love to do, even when you feel lonely.

Surviving Being a Survivor of Suicide

I wish this wasn’t a topic to write about. Alleviating human suffering is at the core of my profession, and yet everyday there are people who can no longer bear their darkness and take their own lives. In their wake, are the close friends and family who did their very best to help. Unfortunately, these survivors of suicide could not control their loved one’s despair anymore than the person in despair could. And so they are left with loss.

If you are a survivor reading this, you should know that you are not alone in your pain, and the way that you are feeling is perfectly okay. There is no wrong way to feel – there is only feeling, itself.

Emotions are not dictated by logic or reason. Don’t pay attention to the myth that grief follows strict, fixated, rigid, or linear stages. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel, however it feels, and whenever you feel it. It’s okay not to be okay.

Surviving the Holidays

Holidays can be really tough times for survivors, especially if their loved one died in these months. It doesn’t help that our culture forces cheer and joy down our throats, even when we feel at our darkest. It can make the shame, guilt and loneliness even worse.

Below are some tips for how to get through the holidays, or any other really difficult time. Keep in mind, these tips may or may not make you feel better. My goal is not necessarily to change the way you feel – remember, it’s okay not to be okay – rather, my hope in providing these tips is for survivors to find meaning in life, even where there is pain.     

  • You have the freedom to do whatever you choose to do around the holidays – Whether it’s time with friends and family or time to yourself
    • If you would like to be spending more time with family/friends but find it hard to reach out, try this:
      • Can you remember a time, between the times of darkness, when your loved one lived their life to the fullest? What did they stand for in those moments?
      • With this version of your loved one in mind, what do you think they would say to in your time of sadness?
      • What would they say about your struggle to be with family?
  • Self-care and self-compassion
    • If you choose to stay away from family for self-care, that’s okay too. There is no wrong way to react. In this case, a little self-care can go a long way. Here are some ways to find self-care:
      • Do your favorite activity, even if it’s a guilty pleasure. It’s okay not to be okay and it’s okay to be okay, even if it’s just for a little while.
      • Go to that one place you and your loved one always went. It might make you cry, but it might make you smile at the exact same time.
      • Call your favorite person: Friend, family, partner, that one person you really care about but who you haven’t talked to in forever. Talk, laugh, and be heard.
      • Reach out to support groups. They understand the pain, even if they can’t understand your pain. You can find a group in the Tampa Bay area here.
      • View our list of resources here.
      • Exercise: Walk, bike, swim, run, jump, pull, push, whatever exercise you love to do.
    • Let yourself cry. Maybe you have been crying already, but have you just let yourself cry? No holding back, no pushing down, and no need to be strong. Let yourself go and hold yourself tight.
  • These tips are in no way exhaustive. Find what works for you and do that thing.

The takeaway message here is this: Be kind to yourself in your grief, when you cry, when you smile, and when you remember. If you find self-kindness too difficult, bring to mind your loved one lost. If they were right there, next to you, would they shame you? Would they scold you? Or would they hug you? Would they offer kind, gentle, and loving words? Treat yourself as your loved one would treat you when they were at their absolute best. And remember, it’s okay not to be okay.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please call 211, text HOME to 741741, or start a chat with someone online.