How the emergency services can overcome flashbacks & nightmares

Two paramedics standing in front of an ambulance

Many different forms

The sweats. The recall. The insomnia. That accident.

As an emergency services worker or volunteer, you're first on the scene of tragedies.

You see the most horrific accidents, so severe, you can't block out the memory. 

This often appears in your sleep, in the form of flashbacks and nightmares.

The constant, emotionally-charged reminders can lead to sleep disturbances, anxiety problems, and depression. 

‘Rewriting’ the trauma

Normal things trigger these intrusive responses – like watching a car accident on television or hearing a song that was playing on that day.

While you don’t want to relive these moments in your mind, it’s also important not to block them out.

After the flashback is over, try to understand it. Your triggers will be unique to you.

Human memory isn’t a computer memory, where things are straightforward and in a line.

It’s interwoven with emotion, thoughts and experiences.

It’s natural for humans to avoid terror, fear and grief, but you need to in order to let go.

From there, you can explore the trauma, and re-examine your feelings and beliefs about the memory. In time, the memory will no longer trigger you.

10 ways to let go

  1. Share with others and accept support. Other people can help to positively change how you perceive the memory.
  2. Write down the flashback and nightmare. Keep a journal of your memories and link the trigger. 
  3. Use art, music, poetry, theatre, or dance to express yourself.
  4. Creative visualisation and positive self-talk to help you keep calm. Tell yourself you’re safe.
  5. Soft exercise followed by a few minutes of meditation
  6. Massage & body work to relieve physical tension
  7. Explore your spirituality to give your problems over to a higher power and also learn how to forgive – both others and yourself.
  8. Establish a bed time routine and avoid all distractions 30 minutes prior to going to your bedroom.
  9. Take deep breaths from the diaphragm. Lie down and watch your tummy move up and down to practice these deep breaths. Breathing into a paper bag may also be useful if you're hyperventilating. It helps the breathing to return to a normal depth and pace. Try to stay focused on your breathing by counting the breaths or just thinking "breath in, breath out". 
  10. Use herbal remedies such as lavender essential oil. Avoid relying on drugs or unhealthy, temporary ways to feel good.

Most importantly, don’t put pressure on yourself to deal with it ‘right now.’

Give yourself permission to feel down and remind yourself how unique life in emergency services is.

Remember, psychology benefits are provided under Emergency Services Health's Combined and Rolling Extras cover, should you feel you need a little extra help from a professional. 
It’s okay to help yourself this time. 

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