Rachelle Zemlok, PsyD
FIRST RESPONDER FAMILY ANXIETY
Updated: Sep 26, 2019
Anxiety and distress in general can be more common in first responder family members. Why is this? Here are 5 reasons in general that more anxiety symptoms and overall distress exists among first responder families.
1. More exposure to traumatic experiences: First responders are at a higher risk for developing PTSD or PTSD-related symptoms. This is due to the fact that they are exposed to multiple traumatic events on a regular basis for an extended period of time. This might include hyper-arousal to potentially dangerous situations. This may look like a person who is highly anxious. For example, sitting in the back corner of a restaurant potentially as a way to be aware of everything going on in the room or overly concerned about potential dangers or harm to loved ones. Symptoms might be greater in more senior first responders, those that work within busier departments, or those that work a lot of overtime due to greater symptoms of distress being linked to an increased exposure and more frequent exposure to such events.
2. Spouses show more symptoms of distress and PTSD related symptoms when intimate partners do. Obviously when we are married and raising a family with someone else what is going on in their life directly has an impact on us. For example, a fire wife might become more hypervigilant about family safety too. Or a police wife’s distress level might increase due to the fact that they are likely to have to deal with the most intense parts of irritability, anger outbursts, and detachment that often come with anxiety and PTSD related symptoms. When individuals are not aware of what’s happening and help is not sought out, a relationship can start to fall into some negative cycles of relating where the spouse may also be more irritable, angry, and detached.
3. Children can start showing signs of distress similar to those experienced in parents with PTSD or anxiety. We are modeling for our children every day and they learn so much from us, whether we want them to or not. Sometimes this is from what we say and many times it’s from what we do. Our children start to develop a view of the world based on what information they gather from their caretakers. So, if the message is “the world is a dangerous place” based on the types of stories told to them, what they over hear, how parents respond to them, how lessons are taught, how many cameras and security systems are put on one home to protect the family etc… then first responder children will start to approach their world as though it’s a dangerous place. This can look like many worries, fears, and general symptoms of anxiety in kids.
4. The family’s ongoing exposure to emergency responder talk. Fire and police families can often be exposed to worries and concerns through discussions around events that have occurred at the first responder’s job and the behaviors that result at home. It’s inevitable… when your spouse responds to emergencies for work that the family is going to hear more about all the very sad and crazy things that happen out there. This can take a toll on a fire family and police family in the same way it does for the first responder. Talking about each other’s day is great! Please, however, limit talk about first responder work in front of children. As a child psychologist that gets to hear from kids themselves (even very young ones) what information they are gathering from home, I will tell you with 100% confidence... They are picking up on way more than parents think and they are listening even when adults do not always think they are.They often times don’t know what to do with that information and maybe don’t even know exactly what it all means. However, children pick up on the emotion behind what is being said and are highly susceptible to anxiety about their own safety as well as their parent’s safety.
5. The potentially dangerous nature of the work. In general, as first responder spouses we worry about the potential dangers and harm of the job, especially when our first responders are called to work out of their regular schedule such as for a SWAT call out for police wives or a Strike Team for fire wives. It’s human nature to worry about the worst case scenarios. It’s not easy to send our spouses off to work not knowing what their shift might bring.