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 trigger 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 chronic disease). You might not even feel it when you hit the wall. Stay tuned…


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