High Risk Humans

 Vicarious Trauma: The Effects on First Responders

By Damedrist Wright, MS SFC (RET)

As our lives and lifestyles become increasingly complex and hectic, resilience has become an ever more important skill to have. First responders who are exposed to disruptive events involving death, violence, or life-threatening situations on a daily basis are in special need of this valuable trait. When traumatic events occur, the impact can have an overwhelming effect on a first responder in various ways depending on the location, severity, and length of time being exposed to complex stressors.

Researchers are looking at different ways first responders react to traumatic events as an individual and during on-scene responses within a community. Common side effects of exposure may involve secondary traumatic stress, compassion fatigue, and burnout.  Helping first responders develop resilience by training them to look at the positive consequences of dealing with traumatic events versus the negative consequences is one method for increasing resilience.  One potential focal point for shaping this more productive sense of resiliency involves developing an individual’s sense of self-efficacy.

Self-efficacy is defined as an individual’s belief in themselves to achieve some degree of success in any given situation and having the courage to remain confident when faced with various traumatic events.  First responders must feel confident and in control of their efforts in assisting people even when the situation presents some major challenges.  This helps reduce the levels of distress and symptoms associated with vicarious trauma.  Also, self-efficacy is important collectively to a group of first responders who need to work together during a traumatic event to achieve success in helping people involved in the incident.  This method helps in improving first responders’ ability to react to various traumatic events as individuals and within a group during on-scene responses within a community.

Leaders need to become more aware of the importance of an individual’s sense of efficacy to help build-up their resilience during traumatic events.  This may require first responders to receive training on how to identify positive factors rather than negative.

  • Learning how to strengthen their understanding of themselves by establishing goals and achieving those goals to boost more self-confidence. This will build an individual self-efficacy and strengthen resilience.
  • Continuous training provided by the leadership to enhance the first responder’s ability to perform their job. This method of vicarious learning helps the individual to fully understand what is expected of them from leadership.  It is very powerful when leaders express their own memories and feelings about possible obstacles by sharing their experiences in the field.
  • Providing forums for first responders to discuss some of their challenges from both their past and most recent traumatic events with their peers.  These experiences shared amongst each other can assist in building resilience and confidence in facing challenges in high-risk professions.

In addition to the on-going messages about efficacy and resilience that leaders and trainers can provide, counselors, spiritual leaders, and therapists can partner when needed to reinforce these skills. By developing a community mindset and promoting a culture of openness, mutual support, and learning, high-risk professionals can better serve each other and members of the public. If you hear comments about the “weakness” associated with talking about vicarious and cumulative stress or the “stigma” of seeking assistance, know that you’re hearing from someone who is not keeping up with scientifically sound research and best practice standards in the high-risk professions. Skilled and “in the know” professionals have made the shift towards self-care and mutual support of colleagues as critical professional activities. Being prepared to do the job means using every resource available to realistically train for and regroup from the day to day impact on the self and the team when serving the public.

Are You Out of GAS?

by Deborah Ontiveros, PhD

During the 1930s a researcher by the name of Selye described what he referred to as the General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS). Selye was interested in the long-term effects of chronic or constant activation and he is credited with first using the term stress to describe influences from the environment that triggers the body’s biological fight, flight or freeze response. The term “stress” was borrowed from the field of engineering where it referred to pressures applied to metals. In the beginning, applied pressure strengthens metals (think of heat applied to steel). However, excessive applied pressure eventually causes a destructive effect (steel will eventually bend and break). Selye described 3 stages which occur when stress is applied:

  1. Alarm – activation of the fight, flight, freeze response
  2. Resistance – the body’s efforts to adapt and return to homeostasis (normal) while still dealing with the stressor
  3. Exhaustion – depletion of the body’s resources for responding

In high-risk professions, it is necessary to develop a certain amount of stress resistance or resilience. Your training was incrementally more and more difficult for this reason. It is necessary to establish a “new normal” or the ability to function normally under job-related pressures that are not typical in other environments. This is a very necessary type of stress resistance that enables you to function on the job. Part of this involves learning to function under adverse circumstances (shift work, weather extremes, sudden confrontations). Stress resistance, to a certain degree, involves learning to work through your body’s signals of activation. This is Stage 2 of the Selye model and becomes your “new normal” while on the job. However, there is a downside. In most high-risk professions, individuals get ample practice “tuning out” their body’s signals and very little, if any training “tuning back in.” The result of this lopsided practice is that many high-risk professionals become so used to being amped up, they no longer feel it even when off duty.


Selye was interested in what happened when people were in a state of resistance for long periods of time. He wondered what it would look like when the body’s crisis system “failed.” He described the result as exhaustion or a state in which serious harmful effects from stress could occur. The harmful effects of prolonged stress have been studied extensively and they are serious. Some of the documented effects of excessive or prolonged stress include:

  1. Higher risk for illnesses (run of the mill colds, flu)
  2. Higher risk for hypertension
  3. Higher risk for stroke
  4. Higher “bad” cholesterol levels
  5. Higher risk for weight gain
  6. Higher risk of developing cancer
  7. Higher risk of chronic headaches
  8. Higher risk of chronic pain
  9. Higher risk of sleep problems
  10. Higher risk of accidents

Stress, or applied pressure, is not necessarily a bad thing. Applied pressure improves an individual’s resilience. Resilience is very desirable. I will discuss the concept of resilience in future articles but for now,

just pay attention to the very real ways your job

training may have fallen short. You may be quite capable of tuning out or working through your body’s signals. At times this is necessary. However, you most likely have received little (if any) training on working with your body as you develop your stress resistance skills. Fighting your body’s design is never smart. Developing your potential by working within the design can make you amazing. Unless you personally take charge of practicing tuning back in and working with the design, you may be headed for a big, fat, physical, mental and emotional brick wall called exhaustion (sometimes known as a chronic disease). You might not even feel it when you hit the wall. Stay tuned…

The Word “Stress” is Potentially Dangerous

By Deborah Ontiveros, PhD

Is there a good reason why it’s a no-no to admit to feeling “stressed” in some dangerous work settings?

There’s a lot of tension around this word in high-risk professions. Admitting dangerous work is stressful and therefore harmful is considered a sign of being enlightened, educated and open-minded about psychological issues. Resistance to this way of thinking is considered old school, macho, or just stubbornly ignorant. Most of us, when we think about stress, immediately think about issues in our environment which are negatively impacting us mentally, emotionally or physically. We are very aware that, left unmanaged or occurring in too high a dose, stress can make us sick, unhappy and hurt our performance. Despite this, if you work in a dangerous profession, you also get the message that you can’t be weak about facing the stressors of the job because it’s a sign you’re not cut out for the work.  And, just maybe, your gut tells you it’s true – negative overthinking about the stresses you’re facing will distract you and being distracted is dangerous.

Well, Dr. Deb says: We’re going in circles because all of the above are actual facts. We need to be open and educated about psychological issues, especially in dangerous professions where psychological health is a critical job skill. Stubborn ignorance never improved any situation. Left unmanaged, stress can make us sick and be distracted by work stressors can be dangerous in dangerous professions.

The real problem, especially in high-risk work settings, is the way we are attempting to manage and talk about stress. The concept of stress, with all the associated negativity we now have about it, is no longer a useful way to discuss what we need to address.

I’d like to challenge you to start weeding the word stress out of the conversation. Check out this great presentation regarding the latest research about the way we talk about stress and then leave a comment below:

Understanding the Importance of Being in Control

By Damedrist Wright, MS SFC (RET)

            Throughout life, we gain Experience that prevents us from failing to Achieve our goals and Motivates us to Never give up”. 

After serving in the United States Armed Forces for more than 20 years, taught me the value of the experience that motivates us to attain our goals.  In our profession, as firefighters, law enforcement officer, medical professional, and service members take precedence in providing the support for our country and community automatically.  The experience, we have in this sense, is an uncontrollable and unquantifiable base on our profession and what we do regarding our profession.  For example, being a rural firefighter with limited experience versus an urban firefighter with greater amount experience in dealing with a blaze at a 1000 square foot home.  As a law enforcement officer having to deal with a criminal suspect or a medical professional dealing with a patient’s vital signs. Lastly, a service member trains to protect our country.  Experience provides us with a desire that is uncontrollable and motivates us to support our community and country.

What we can control is how experience is implemented in our daily lives by the understanding of the importance of our learning and training to become more proficient in our profession.  Understanding that it requires us to be healthy, alert, and prepared to face any situation to provide the necessary support for community and country.

Using our experience in educating ourselves in becoming knowledgeable and aware of the diverse populace of people that we support.  Also, continue to expand our understanding of the importance of education in our profession, that will automatically present itself when our experience is activated when we are required to perform the duties of our profession.

The implementation of our experience involving self-care such as physical fitness and our attitude.  Our experiences lead us to find a relaxation and peace of mind through activities that help us “whine down”.  Also, the experience will help us to control our emotions based on having a positive or negative attitude.  Experience will let us know, based on the effects it has on our bodies by way of our health.

Experience will help us take at least an hour or more a day to assist in maintaining our ability to be successful in our profession.  This helps us to maintain our knowledge and education level of understanding to better assist us in our profession.  Lastly, maintaining our health and emotional stamina through physical fitness.

Overall, if we understand the importance of experience in our lives it will, prevents us from failing to Achieve our goals, and Motivates us to Never give up”. We must ensure we implement these steps to continue to provide support to our community and country.

           The Importance of Developing Mental Toughness

                       By Damedrist Wright, MS SFC (RET)

When we think about star athletes like LeBron James, Steph Curry, or Tom Brady do you ever wonder why they’re able to succeed in their profession?

We must ask ourselves, “what do I have to do to develop the same type of mental toughness to become successful in our profession? “

I think it is based on mental toughness.  Mental toughness outweighs having the intelligence or the talent needed to succeed in your job profession, daily activities, and throughout our lives.  Over the past several years, studies have been conducted to identify how much does mental toughness plays a role or impact our lives.

Firefighters, Law Enforcement, and Armed Forces personnel are required to take an aptitude exam and participate in a series of tests involving both physical and mental abilities throughout their training to test their resiliency as well as their competency levels.  These tests are designed to challenge their ability to use their intellectual and institutional knowledge, but their mental toughness plays a major role in helping them to become successful in achieving their goals.

When we determine, what mental toughness means and how to implement it in our profession and daily lives we should consider the following:

  • Establishing Goals and “Stick” to them
    • Knowing yourself
    • Determine your Vision
    • Self-Motivated for Life Changes
    • Stay Focus on Consistency
    • Achieve Greater Success

Mental toughness is about having a goal or a job to do, understanding the purpose of what you want to accomplish, maintain your motivation to make it through the challenge of change, always maintaining your focus, and finally achieving your goal.  Mental toughness is not only about your competency it is about your ability to be resilient to achieve success in all that you do.

One thought on “High Risk Humans

  1. Hello,
    My name is Mike Jordan and I am a Lieutenant with the El Paso Fire Department. I am also presently a client of your services. I only came across your program by chance, seeing a small poster in an obscure area of the Training Academy. I am very passionate about helping others, but the majority of this departments personnel have no idea the help exists.
    I would love to help in anyway I can to get the word out. Helping others has always been my calling.

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