RELATIONSHIPSFirehouseDoes Unresolved Trauma Create Poor Leadership?

Does Unresolved Trauma Create Poor Leadership?

By: Keith Hanks Founder, President – Traumatic Strength, LLC

It’s no secret today that as first responders, we are faced with a constant gauntlet of various types of traumas. In its simplest form, just showing up for a shift or call exposes you to a situation most in society will never experience, never mind endure time and time again. Big city, small town, volunteer or full-time, we immerse ourselves into the worst days of the public in the name of helping others.

What happens when those expected to be operating at their absolute best in the worst of situations don’t manage their trauma and stress in a healthy way?

At one end of the spectrum, the shortest answer is decision-making is clouded and the loss of life and property is at a higher risk. The longer more in-depth answer involves diving a bit more into how a first responder with unresolved trauma potentially carries themselves while on duty. 

Let’s start with defining what qualifies as unresolved trauma.

Most human beings have experienced a form of trauma at some point in their life be it abuse, a bad childhood, or seeing a horrific accident or the death of another person. Experiencing trauma is a normal occurrence and a majority of society, after this happens, then seeks out some form of professional psychiatric care and support. They are attempting to resolve and hopefully heal from the trauma they’ve experienced, whatever the treatment or modality may be.

 Now, first responders are unique regarding the amount of trauma they tend to experience, day in and day out, compared with the general population. In recent years there’s been much change to the stigma regarding first responders being able to get treatment and talk about the “bad calls” they respond to while on duty. The issue is, a lot of times the root of the problem lies in the responder’s past, in particular their childhood. 

When you have unresolved childhood trauma, even as a member of the general population, it has a say in your everyday decisions. You take that individual and put them in a first responder role, and leadership decision-making is guaranteed to be affected in one way or another. Unresolved trauma, at times, can weigh you down and make the simplest of tasks seem daunting. The “backpack” that we continually fill up with these trauma rocks, and most don’t remove any, eventually has adverse effects on the responder.

How can unresolved trauma and untreated Post Traumatic Stress (PTSD) affect an individual’s ability to think clearly in high-stress situations?

Our fight-or-flight response is controlled by the sympathetic nervous system. It detects danger and directs the body’s response to it. It acts as a sort of gas pedal giving us the energy needed, in the form of released chemicals, to either stand and “fight” the danger or run away from it. The issue with trauma and more specifically PTSD, is that the system gets confused. Very confused. Individuals with PTSD often relay that their brains are “always going” and that thoughts are coming in from every direction. In some cases, a high-stress situation can provide a sense of release from the overwhelming thoughts, images, and past events circulating within one’s trauma-ridden mind.

In other cases, however, the introduction of a stressful situation, coupled with the need to make a critical decision based on life safety can be a recipe for disaster. The brain feeling even more overloaded, seeks out a decision that results in a quicker outcome that is not always situationally appropriate. This scenario plays out every day across the first responder workforce and in most cases does not end in a loss of life. But that’s one end of the spectrum. 

What about all the other smaller, “less significant” situations where impaired judgment due to a clouded mind leads to a rash, not thought-out decision? 
  • Budget/financial
  • Overlooking code violations during inspections
  • Being complacent with training or lack of
  • Equipment maintenance
  • Routine patient care during medical aid emergencies
  • Equipment/Apparatus placement
  • Staffing decisions

A small list of what is likely a broader reality leads to the most important part of this discussion.

What can be done to help improve leadership decision-making in the first responder community?

The short answer is education and training. The more in-depth one involves looking at mental health and wellness resources, implementation thereof, and the changing of a culture around the stigma. The fact is there are a lot of resources and modalities out there and available for first responders to mitigate stress and trauma. From traditional talk therapy and counseling to noninvasive retreats and animal therapy. Self-care modalities that help re-center and focus on the NOW have finally become more popular in the first responder community. Some of these include meditation and mindfulness, yoga, reiki, massage, acupuncture, breathing techniques, and breath work, and tried and tested journaling.

Education and training can come in many forms, ranging from classroom courses to conference level presentations, webinars to podcasts. The point is this. Overall, we first responders carry way too much stress and unresolved trauma that is, in some cases, affecting those in leadership roles critical thinking abilities. The more we talk about this and even, dare I say show some vulnerability, the more likely the culture will shift where we produce stronger, more resilient, and clearer minded first responders. First responders create leadership role models, that future generations will aspire to for years to come. 

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