Emotion – Too Much of a Good Thing?

We spoke of the acute response to stress yesterday, but let’s talk a little about what happens if you don’t recognize that your emotions affect more than just your short term performance on an emergency.  There is much documented in regard to understanding your emotions are normal reactions to stress, but if you don’t find appropriate and constructive ways to manage those, the cumulative effect can be traumatic.

We try to regulate emotion to fit in with what we consider to be normal response to the situation. The problem is, especially in our business, that we face many and sometimes conflicting demands on us when we are engaged in emergency response. Obviously, there are cultural norms that I won’t even begin to discuss (we don’t have enough space) that can run the range of nation, gender, upbringing, etc.

While our “fight or flight” response is an adaptive reaction to the situation, the chronic increases in stress can result in negative effects, like tension, fatigue, headaches, upset stomach, and sleeping disorders.  Left unabated, this can even lead to anger, depression, substance abuse, or social withdrawal. Further problems include suppression of the immune system, leaving the body susceptible to infection.

There is a subtle difference between checking your emotions and suppressing them entirely.  None of what I have suggested to you is meant to instruct you that we have to suppress emotion entirely.  What we have to do is recognize when our emotions leave us vulnerable to making poor decisions, to rushing our actions, or create a narrowing of focus that locks out reason. We have to recognize that our duty requires us to push what might seem like a normal reaction to most people, and channel that energy into solving problems.  We can have all the time to get emotional about it later when we have a safe place to do so.  The scene is not that place.

For example, you might very well have an aversion to blood.  The sight of bleeding might produce a negative physiological reaction.  Well, unfortunately, in our job, we happen to see a lot of blood.  It’s normal to see it, so if you have a reaction that leaves you unable to function, then maybe you need to consider a different aspect of the job or find a method of overcoming that reaction.  I empathize with your plight, but if you are going to faint every time you see blood, you might not want to do a job that involves, well, dealing with blood.  But it is task dependent; in our organization, everyone is cross-trained.  If you work on the line in our organization, you WILL see blood, and most likely you will see it several times a day.  If you are afraid of heights, you may not want to be stationed on a truck company.

My point is that we have to expect a hazardous scene to be, well, hazardous.  That seems pretty obvious, but I have trained new firefighter candidates before that, when giving them an assignment, they said, “I didn’t know I was going to have to do that…”

When we are engaging in a hazardous activity, we must have a clear head and total focus on our surroundings.  If we are overly excited, or scared, or even thrilled (because some of these individuals are indeed, overjoyed that they are getting ready to, say, drive a fire engine with lights and sirens on), we need to step back in our heads for a second and realize that our adrenaline overload may very well be the contributing factor to our demise or someone else’s.  If we find ourselves in that situation, that should be a danger signal to you, that we need to take a moment to look around and focus on what it is we are about to do, and perhaps even get feedback from the rest of the team.  You may find out that they are in the same state, in which case, you should all be paying attention.

Tomorrow, more about emotion! (Did you like that little bit of emotion there?  Don’t get used to it.)

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