Spotting Signs of Anxiety in First Responders

Spotting Signs of Anxiety in First Responders
Spotting Signs of Anxiety in First Responders

Sara Miller

This blog was written in collaboration with WLU's Online Master of Public Safety student Sarah Miller.

First responders play a crucial role in disaster and emergency management. They are, after all, the first ones on the scene. In most emergency management situations, first responders can rely on their training and education to help them manage incidents. Even if the situation escalates and assistance is needed from provincial or federal governments, first responders are likely to remain involved.

Being a first responder is demanding and facing danger, trauma and disaster on a daily basis can take its toll. Unsurprisingly, first responders are at a higher risk of mental health-related illnesses such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Decreased job performance in first responders can be costly – and not just financially. In an emergency management situation, mistakes can cost lives. Therefore, it’s important for first responders to recognize signs of anxiety in themselves and their colleagues, so they can access the support they need.

Here are some common signs of anxiety and how they may manifest for first responders:

Always on edge: Feeling strained and unable to relax, even during downtime. Muscle tension can cause headaches and back, shoulder and jaw pain. You may also become quick to anger.

Challenges with prioritizing: All tasks seem daunting, regardless of their actual effort level. Small jobs may end up eclipsing big ones. The shoe rack might be pristinely organized, but your check engine light has been on for months and your bills are overdue. This may also manifest as procrastination, due to the difficulty of assessing effort levels.

Constant worrying: Being consumed by “what ifs” or regrets at the expense of being able to concentrate on essential tasks. Not being able to effectively manage worrying thoughts and envisioning unrealistic worst-case scenarios.

Sleep issues: A common symptom of anxiety is insomnia. Sleep issues negatively affect performance by reducing energy levels and slowing reaction time. This can be a major problem for first responders, who need to be able to make the right decision as fast as possible in emergency situations.

Avoidance: Previously enjoyable or routine activities are often avoided due to the stress they may cause. Parties become a no-go, public speaking makes you sick to your stomach and you may decline invitations with excuses. This behaviour only reinforces feelings of anxiety.

Changes in appetite: Your eating habits may change drastically. You may find yourself undereating, overeating or choosing unhealthy options.

Physical signs: Sweating, trembling, blushing, stomach pain, nausea and increased heart rate are some physical signs of anxiety. Panic attacks may also manifest.

Drug and alcohol use: New or increased use of drugs and or alcohol is another common sign of anxiety. This is typically due to a desire to “self-medicate”, but this generally backfires and can intensify feelings of anxiety or lead to addiction.

Being able to recognize these signs when you encounter them will better enable you to seek help or suggest help for others, whether that’s developing healthier coping mechanisms, seeking therapy, talking to your doctor or taking time off to recover. Anxiety is a real medical issue with real consequences if left untreated. If you see the signs, do the right thing and take action.

emergency management situation

If you are a Laurier student in need of mental health support, there are many resources available to you.

Are you passionate about public safety? Wilfrid Laurier University’s online Master of Public Safety (MPS) program was created in alignment with Public Safety Canada by experienced public safety professionals. This one-of-a-kind program is designed to help working professionals like you become effective leaders in public safety. If you’re particularly interested in Emergency Management or don’t qualify directly for the MPS, Laurier also offers a graduate diploma in Emergency Management that can be transferred into the MPS program.

Master Of Public Safety Student Named One Of Canadian Security’s Top 10 Under 40

Master of Public Safety student Sarah Miller was recently recognized at Canadian Security’s annual honours event as one of the Top Ten Under 40 security leaders in the country. Sarah has worked in the security industry since 2014, specializing in healthcare and risk management while working in leadership roles with well-known Canadian security companies Paladin Security, GardaWorld and Synergy Protection. Sarah began studying with Wilfrid Laurier University in January 2021 in the emergency management stream and has been successfully applying what she’s learned to the security industry. Sarah also contributes to the industry by volunteering as treasurer for the Ontario chapter of the International Association for Healthcare Security and Safety, as the communications committee chair for ASIS International’s Toronto chapter, and as a member of the Toronto Police Service’s 14 Division Community Police Liaison Committee.

Laurier is proud of its students’ accomplishments. Congratulations, Sarah!

Read more about her award.