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Emotions are survival tools for firefighters

How to face, not fear, emotions in order to bolster your mental health


While an emotional issue might not have a simple fix, much like in firefighting, the best way to handle a problem is to turn toward it, figure it out, and to ask for help if you need it.

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For good or for bad, life is full of emotions.

While it makes sense to exercise a little bit of caution when it comes to who you share your emotions with and how you express your feelings, emotions, ultimately, can be faced, or feared.

A fearful and avoidant attitude toward emotions can be bad for your health and relationships. In fact, a 2012 study of firefighters showed that “fear of emotions” was a risk factor for developing PTSD symptoms.

On the other hand, people can generally face their feelings. While an emotional issue might not have a simple fix, much like in firefighting, the best way to handle a problem is to turn toward it, figure it out, and to ask for help if you need it.

Let’s dig a little deeper.

Emotions as signals

In times of both crisis and recovery, emotions point you to the things that matter. Whether what matters on a given day is safety, love or even simply food or water, emotions equip you with the feelings that you need to survive.

One of the ironic things about the fire service is that while helping others, firefighters often avoid the feelings that they need to help themselves. While it makes sense to avoid negative feelings, the benefits of avoidance, over the long-term, are complicated. For instance, just think of what happens when you ignore an alarm. Over time, the problem does that caused the alarm does not go away, and the problem often gets worse. In the case of emotions, ignoring your feelings can take a toll, not only on your mood, but also on your health, work and relationships.

The good news is that emotions are entirely natural, and for the most part, they can be understood. While facing your emotions might not be the only way to make sense of your problems, the ability to safely approach your feelings can be good for your mental health.

So, what exactly is an emotion? An emotion is a signal that alerts you to change. The emotional signal is made by the mind and the body, and the more important the change seems, the more intense the signal should feel.

‘Universal’ emotions

The psychologist Paul Ekman proposed that there are six “universal” emotions: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise and joy. While emotions are not fully understood, and there is ongoing research in this area, the universal emotions are thought to belong to a group of feelings that are primal and raw expressions of need.

Thus, according to the logic of survival:

  • Fear is the emotion that signals threat, and the need to escape.
  • Anger signals threat, but rather than flight, anger signals fight.
  • Disgust signals that something seems toxic.
  • Sadness is the signal of loss, as well as the need for recovery.
  • Surprise signals the need to shift focus.
  • Joy signifies that things are going your way.

Sometimes, after repeated or intense exposure to trauma, it is possible for firefighters to experience a process of emotional constriction where the ability to feel emotions becomes narrower or blunted. While some degree of emotional constriction might be helpful while on an emergency call, generally speaking, feelings are necessary signals that are meant to be felt.

Evaluating emotions

So, how do you feel your feelings? How do you “do” something that comes naturally?

While having emotions is natural, ironically, it also seems natural to avoid negative feelings. So, while this article is not a substitute for a therapy session, here are some common pointers for fighting avoidance and checking in with your feelings:

  • Take the time to notice how you feel: When something happens, notice if it makes you afraid, angry, happy, surprised, disgusted, sad? Perhaps there are other labels that work better. Either way, take a break and notice what your body and mind are already telling you.
  • Ask yourself if your feelings are realistic or helpful: Are your feelings exaggerated or appropriate? Now that you have a sense of your feelings, what can you do about it that is healthy and productive? What can you do that makes sense?
  • Remember that if your emotions are consistently confusing or overwhelming, reach out for support: We are social creatures, and part of how we make sense of our lives is through connecting with other people. If the support you need is not there right now, consider speaking to a mental health professional.

The way toward a solution

If talking about emotions was easy, then maybe it would be easier to deal with problems, and change, in general. But in real life, it can be difficult to know when, and how, to make your feelings a priority. Despite the challenges involved in truly taking care of yourself, it is worth remembering that emotions exist for a reason, and rather than being something to fear, emotions point the way toward a solution.

Note: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800- 273- 8255. This national network of local crisis centers is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, to provide support to those in emotional crisis.

Gilby Kim is a licensed clinical social worker who specializes in trauma therapy with first responders and veterans. Prior to entering the field of social work, Gilby was a U.S. Marine and later a career firefighter, for eight years, with Montgomery County (Maryland) Fire and Rescue Service.