First Responders: How Much Is Too Much?

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Fires consuming thousands of acres and hundreds of homes; school bus accidents claiming the lives of young children; mass casualty incidents with multiple fatalities; how much is too much? How much trauma, drama, and stress can your body and mind take before it turns on you?

Every day, first responders wake up knowing the possibility exists they will hold the hand of a dying child, or say the words that will rip the heart out of an elderly man as his wife of 60 years passes on to the next place. Every day, they run the risk of being injured or killed fighting a fire, working a wreck, or being executed simply for wearing a uniform signaling they are there to help. At what point do all the emotions they tap down and hold on to begin eating them alive? How does the helper know when he or she needs help?

According to SAMHASA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration), the signs of too much stress can be broken down into the following five categories.


Bodily sensations and physical effects:

Headache Stress

Photo: Pixabay/Geralt

Physical signs of too much stress include:

  • Rapid heart rate
  • Palpitations
  • Muscle tension
  • Headaches
  • Tremors
  • Gastrointestinal distress and nausea
  • Inability to relax when off duty
  • Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep
  • Nightmares or flashbacks

Strong Negative Feelings


Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Tellmeimok

Strong, negative feelings include:

  • Fear or terror in life-threatening situations or perceived danger
  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Argumentativeness
  • Irritability
  • Deep sadness
  • Difficulty maintaining emotional balance

Difficulty Thinking Clearly


Photo: Flickr/Homeandgardeners

Difficulty thinking clearly includes:

  • Disorientation or confusion
  • Difficulty problem-solving and making decisions
  • Difficulty remembering instructions
  • Inability to see situations clearly
  • Distortion and misinterpretation of comments and events

Problematic or risky behaviors

lots of wine bottles

Photo: Pixabay/Geralt

Problematic or risky behaviors include:

  • Unnecessary risk-taking
  • Failure to use personal protective equipment
  • Refusal to follow orders or leave the scene
  • Endangerment of team members
  • Increased use or misuse of prescription drugs or alcohol

Social Conflicts

couple arguing

Photo: Commons Wikimedia/Ion Chibzii

Social Conflicts include:

  • Irritability
  • Anger and hostility
  • Blaming
  • Reduced ability to support teammates
  • Conflicts with peers or familu
  • Withdrawal
  • Isolation

If you recognize these symptoms in yourself or a team member, please seek help. You can contact SAMHSA or your primary physician. Don’t wait until it is too late.