First Aid For The Emotions Of Our First Responder

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In the last few weeks on the blog I have discussed emotional regulation. FEELINGS. Any First Responder reading might call it Bulls**t,  many have in my counselling office and online coaching program.  Today I want to talk about Feelings and First Responders because it is essential to healthy relationships in our First Responder Families.  

Why? Because Emotional Literacy & Regulation can prevent suicides, marital breakdowns, addictions and increase resilience. BOOM! That’s why we are talking about it. So grab a drink of water and buckle up

In my experience counselling and coaching First Responder Families, and personally living with one, First Responders are generally not comfortable holding space for hearing or expressing emotions within their own family.

First Responders typically want to fix things. They are trained in their job to diffuse, get in and get out, as effectively as possible. To. solve. the. problem. 

I have heard many First Responder Spouses refer to their First Responder Partner as “Stoic” at home, in relationship with their family. Stoic is defined as without emotion, not showing how you feel.

First Responders are trained to control their emotions. While this serves them in their role at work deescalating, taking control of a situation, it can be a barrier in a relationship with someone they love.

While being stoic might be a necessity at work, it is a detriment to having healthy, intimate relationships at home. The lack of vulnerability- sharing emotions- can create relationship breakdowns.

First Responder Spouses might feel lonely, isolated and disconnected. First Responder’s could feel detached, confused and unsure how to connect differently.

Sometimes our First Responders are unsure what or how to share with us, unknowingly damaging intimacy. Perhaps they think they are protecting us by not sharing their experiences and feelings about what happened at work or in their world.

If there is stress at home, our First Responders might avoid dealing with those issues. They may instead focus on working more or going out with coworkers after work, as they feel valued while they are at work, unlike at home. They might turn towards their coworkers for support instead of their spouse, as they feel understood with the commonality of the shared trauma experience at work increasing their bond. First Responders have told me they might choose to go to the bar after work to give them time to decompress, purging the day’s calls from their system so as not to go home and contaminate their family.  

Societally men and women tend to deal with emotions in different ways and have differing emotional coping styles. According to Gabor Mate, a medical doctor and one of my favourite minds on the planet, women typically are right brained, holistic, inclusive and in touch with their emotions. Meanwhile men can be more left brained, exclusive and not as in touch with their emotions.

Culturally, by and large, we raise our girls and boys differently, allowing girls to feel a range of emotions while limiting our boys emotional literacy with messages  to suck it up, man up, toughen up. Men and boys get the societal message the only emotions acceptable for them to display are strength, power and anger. Women and girls are often made to feel that they are ‘too sensitive’ therefore invalidating and causing them to withdraw and/or isolate.

While our societal messages are shifting today, many of our First Responders were raised with these messages, shaping their ability or inability to recognize and name their feelings.

When many enter my office they are exhausted, anxious and depressed from bottling their emotions up for so long. 

In our First Responder Family Online Training & Support Program, we talk a lot about emotional numbing. Culturally, we use screens (tv, phone, computer, videogames), work, shopping, substances, sex, food, pornography and medication to distract ourselves from what we are feeling. Emotional numbing can be a way to protect ourselves, a way of coping with hard things. 

 Our emotions and body sensations are like indicator lights on a car letting us know we are running out of gas. Our emotions tell us there is something to pay attention to. When we distract ourselves to numb our emotions, it will eventually have a negative affect on our quality of life.

 When we emotionally numb, we can develop mental health struggles such as depression, suicidal ideation and interpersonal difficulties in our relationships with others, especially in our First Responder Marriage and Family. 

When we stop emotionally numbing, it can be painful at first. We will likely feel worse before we feel better as the feelings we have tried to ignore, come to the surface. It is recommended to do this with a support person, counsellor or coach to help you process.  

Our First Responders are showing up to hard things on a daily basis. Over time, responding to traumatic, dangerous and life threatening  situations can have a cumulative impact on our First Responder and our First Responder Family.  The impact of trauma can lead to our First Responder being unable to feel a range of emotions such as love or joy, right now, until they have trauma treatment. We will talk more about this in an upcoming blog. Establishing strategies for Emotional First Aid can help support our First Responder and strengthen our First Responder Family’s Emotional Health.

As an experiment I ask you as a First Responder Family, to consider doing these for ten minutes three days this week Emotional First Aid Skills for a week:
Emotional Literacy: 
Emotional Awareness:
  • After identifying your emotions, listen to what your body is saying. Gabor Mate’s book, “When the Body Says No, the hidden cost of stress is a recommended reading. Ask, what is my body temperature, is there tension, pressure, pain, is my breath shallow, rapid or deep, what is my heart rate?

Emotional Regulation: We talked about the brain flip in the blog last month you can read it here. These strategies help our parasympathetic nervous system calm and get our prefrontal cortex back online. 

  • Diaphragmatic  Breathing
  • Move your body. When we are stressed, moving our body gets rid of the adrenaline and cortisol that floods our body with our stress response. Run, walk, jump, skip, climb, swim, dance, shake it off.

Self Examination: Twenty minutes following our brain flip, when our parasympathetic nervous system is online, it can be helpful to examine our feelings, thoughts and actions. It can give us insight and start a repair conversation. We talk about the normal process of rupture and repair in relationships in this past blog.

  • What was I feeling? Looking at the feeling chart. If you identify anger, it is a secondary emotion. Look for the primary emotions underneath anger. These are the vulnerable emotions anger protects. 

  • Sit with our thoughts. What am I thinking? Is there evidence of this thought? Do my thoughts line up with facts? What is a realistic, yet more positive thought I can replace this thought with?

  • Choose Self Compassionate thoughts. Instead of thinking I’m a loser when I make a mistake, instead, tell yourself "I did my best” ,“it’s okay if I make mistakes”, “mistakes are how I learn”, and ask “how can I grow through this”. Talk to yourself as you would your best friend.

  • Pay attention to where you emotionally numb and how you are feeling when you reach for the distraction.  Consider replacing emotional numbing with a healthy self soothing, nurturing coping skill or activity that leads to calm, relaxation, positive emotions. Download our coping skills checklist here   

We’d love to hear from you after a week of doing these Emotional First Aid Skills for a week, if you or your First Responder Family noticed a difference? Will you be keeping any to form as daily habits? 

We have the following resources available if it might support your First Responder Family:



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