The Fear Factor

How developing anxiety-based disorders can be small steps towards big issues.

We have all heard, at this point, of single call events that have led to brothers and sisters developing the dreaded Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Of course, it is possible. It is difficult, even for trained clinicians, however, to discern between that single event causing PTSD and that single event being the catalyst for it. In my time as a therapist, I’ve come to understand that one thing that seems obviously clear, though. Developing mental health issues is often a slow process over time.

We know from research that there are many factors that come into play. Many of which I’ve discussed elsewhere. Your genes, your experiences before fire, the calls you’re dispatched to, all of these are players in the bigger game of mental health. And, as you can see, many that you have little to no influence over on the grand scheme. There is, however, a major component that you do have a lot of influence over:

How you approach and solve problems.

Don’t, just for this second, think of your work. In fact, when it comes to fireground tasks you likely excel at solving problems. This is because of the hours on hours of practicing making those responses nothing short of automatic. Indeed, like you, I’ve experienced calls where I hardly realize what is occurring as if I’m just watching it all go over like clockwork. But, what about how you solve problems in the firehouse itself? Or at home?

Clinical research indicates that a predisposing factor towards mental health languishing is avoidant problem-solving approaches. This approach, very generally, is along the lines of “if enough time goes by, it’ll solve itself”.  I think it is safe to say, we have all tried this approach once or twice. And, often it works. This is the slippery slide – because it works, we are more apt to try it again.


Imagine for clarity sake, that you are a teen who finds out that if you just “leave it alone” that problem you have with a friend you find immediate relief. Escape from the pressure of that issue. Perhaps neither of you ever discusses it again. So, the next time something similar happens you do the same thing – you get the immediate relief. On and on this goes, each time it’s a little thing. And each time you use this approach, you feel a tiny bit of relief. Fast forward to being in the hall and you have an issue with a colleague – you know how you’ll handle this.

See, each tiny little micro event that you come across feeling an uncomfortable emotional reaction, we’ve opted to distract and avoid facing. Using this approach a handful of times isn’t likely a huge deal. Over time, though, you literally train your brain to ramp up the uncomfortable feeling so you, in turn, turn more rapidly towards this approach to problem-solving in your social life. There’s a proverbial ceiling here somewhere, different for each of us, but once it’s reached that anxious feeling spills out into the rest of our lives. This could be due to a huge social event similar to our examples above or a different event altogether, but nonetheless it feeds into this anxious response.

We have aimed so much time at reactive services that we are missing a huge point. As clinicians and researchers, we’ve been spending so much time gaffing our brothers and sisters as they float by, trying to save them all, but have really missed walking upriver to find out where they are falling in. Don’t mistake this as a call to you to try and uncover this in your colleagues in order to help them out. “Firefighter therapists” are not the answer here.

Instead, it’s a call to you to reflect on your own approach with some deep, hard, brutal, brute truth. If you have an avoidant approach to problem-solving, this is a teachable skill. You weren’t “born” with it, after all, you had to learn it. And therefore you can learn another way as well. Catching it and changing the course of this approach early is key. It gives you time to practice and work on the kinks, plus it gives you a greater understanding that this process won’t be linear. Before a really big problem arises, you’ll experience what it is like to work hard at changing something only to find that you are doing that “same ole thing” when a problem comes up. That is the learning moment. Drop the judgments and work on the changes.

Taking problems head-on won’t make you fireproof. But, it’s a huge start.