Unprocessed big emotion sometimes gets stuck.
For anyone who works as a first responder, you may know this “stuck” feeling – it can keep you up at night, give you bad dreams, have you experience flashbacks as though you were still at the scene, make you irritable, and understandably fuck with your concentration. It’s not that you’re not tough enough to handle it. Not that you should have been better. The experience itself tends to be far less important than how the circumstances were encoded and when you attend to the consequences or fallout from that experience. Without question, posttraumatic stress disorder is not a mental illness—it is a psychological injury. Just like a physical injury, the sooner we address it, the better the prognosis becomes.
Emotional injuries, when our mental health is gravely affected, can be so isolating. The stigma remains the biggest, baddest barrier that debilitates people, sometimes more than the injury itself. This is exacerbated in the world of first responders because the culture is not conducive to addressing the hard things. This is further perpetuated by the very call of the job—which is to serve other people who need help.
Organizations that look after their people, and stay connected to their families, too, create healthy, productive cultures. When that doesn’t happen, relationships within those systems start to disintegrate. We can’t tell our employees how to open up, or how to process trauma. We have to show them, create opportunities for authentic dialogue, and remind them that they’re not alone. And the bar is low, people. It doesn’t take much more than a high-quality meat tray, or a coffee run and a “how are you, really, how are you feeling?” to make employees feel seen.
Because trauma won’t kill you, but not talking about it just might.