the people you serve, seeing yourself as separate and different,
leads to burnout. These are human beings, and you know nothing
of what they have experienced in their lives. Simply connect with
them as imperfect human beings—just like you. By doing so, you
are making some degree of a change, in yourself and in the person
you just encountered. There will be times when this simply does
not work. If you run on the same addicted, mentally ill, homeless
person more than once on every shift, compassion may be understandably out of reach. In this case, notice how long the call lasts
and compare it to how long you feel angry and frustrated. Did
the call last 10 minutes but you thought about it for two hours or
more? Your anger does not change the situation, but it does ruin
Focus on what you can control. Our emotions should give us
accurate and useful information. If we feel fear, there should be
some danger we need to avoid. If we feel anger, there should be an
injustice we need to address. But when we feel anger and there is
no action to take, like being angry and frustrated about going on
calls that you feel are pointless, this leads to stress and burnout.
There are many huge social problems, such as addiction and
severe mental illness, that you can’t fix. Allow yourself to feel frustrated for no more than a few minutes, and then let it go. There
are many things in life that we have no control over, but there
is one thing that is always available to us: We have control over
how we respond to what life throws at us. A tool to help you with
this is how to live in the present. You also may have other actions
available to you depending on the size of your department. For
example, you may want to consider making a change such as
promoting, transferring to another station, or going to a support
position for a while.
Remain mindful of dual realities. Reality #1: There is pain and
suffering in this world, sometimes random, sometimes self-inflicted, and sometimes caused by people who are “bad actors.”
Reality #2: There is also joy, beauty, and people who are caring and
compassionate—people who do good in the world. Being aware
of only one of either of these realities is not accurate or helpful.
Remember that your work is part of this second truth.
Remember the “good” calls. It is important to recall all the good
calls at the end of each shift or keep a journal as a reminder. Firefighters have a negativity bias in their memories of the multitude
of calls they experience over their career. That is, they recall the
“bad” calls. These are the calls of child abuse, the death of a child
from a random tragic accident, or similar events of human loss
and suffering. They are less likely to recall the good calls—when
someone was saved, for example. While there are the “big” good
calls—bringing someone back, saving a child from a burning
structure—there are many smaller but also “good” calls. While it
was insignificant to the emergency responder, it may have been
a much bigger crisis for the people who received help. In fact, it
may be something they never forget. Yet, the firefighter may not
even recall this event. In addition, the view that a call was “bad”
may ignore aspects of the call that were profoundly significant.
For example, being with someone as he takes his last breath; being
present with parents whose child has died; and testifying at a trial
of someone who killed his child are all examples of deeply significant human experiences if only the firefighter will allow himself to
acknowledge them as such.
Live in the present. Mindfulness is the experience of being fully
present in the moment. We are often living in the past with
thoughts of a conversation we had, worry we hurt someone’s feelings, anger at someone who betrayed us, etc. We just as often live
in the future with thoughts of what we need or want to do, worry
about what might happen, and anxiety about potential failure.
How much time do you spend in either the past or the future?
For most people, living fully in the present is rare. This can rob
us of truly experiencing our lives. It also leads to an anxious and
depressed mind. Mindfulness is powerful and simple; you can
practice being mindful anytime and anywhere.
BUILDING THE MUSCLE
Becoming more mindful is like building a muscle or learning a
new skill; it takes practice and time. To begin, set an alarm on your
phone or watch to go off at three random times a day. When the
alarm goes off, focus on the moment by noticing physical sensations, thoughts, emotions, sights, smells, and tastes—basically,
light up the moment. Do this exercise for 30 to 60 seconds three
times a day.
A second way to build this skill is to pick three different activities
for mindfulness practice. These activities should be something
mundane where your mind would normally wander. This could be
having a cup of coffee, walking the dog, brushing your teeth, walking to your car, etc. For a small portion of the activity, about 30 to
60 seconds, light up your sensory experiences. If you are walking,
notice your footsteps, notice the air on your skin, notice what you
are seeing, and notice what you are hearing.
Most people find these simple exercises relaxing. While you will
begin to notice a difference right away, to make lasting and
significant change you will need to continue to do these exercises
several times a day, every day, for some time. Most people also say
that they soon spontaneously engage in being present without
needing to schedule it. Over time, you will be more relaxed in
general. Then, when a problem emerges, it will be easier to not let
it dominate your thoughts. It will also be much easier to let a
10-minute frustrating call last only 10 minutes.
1. Cloitre, M. “An assessment of the construct validity of ICD- 11 proposal for
complex posttraumatic stress disorder,” Psychological Trauma: Theory Research
Practice and Policy, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1-9, 2017.
2. Herman, Judith, Trauma and Recovery, Harper Collins Publications, 1992.
3. Johnson, D.C., Thom, N.J., Stanley, E.A., Haase, L, et al. “Modifying Resilience
Mechanisms in at-risk individuals: A controlled study of mindfulness training
in marines preparing for deployment,” American Journal of Psychiatry, 171( 8):
4. Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind
to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, New York: Bantam Dell, 1990.
Dr. Karen Jackson is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Denver, Colorado.
For the last 10 years of her 20-year career, she has worked with firefighters. In
addition to providing treatment for firefighters and their families, she also provides
peer-support team training, development, and consultation. In addition, Jackson
conducts training workshops for fire departments on PTSD, resilience, mindfulness,
suicide prevention, healthy relationships, grief, and recovery from substance abuse.
She serves on the committee for the Colorado Firefighter Peer Support Conference.