January 24, 2024

PTSD – what it is, how to spot it and when to get help

PTSD – what it is, how to spot it and when to get help

Post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD is an extremely common problem among emergency workers. PTSD can affect anyone who has been caught up in an intensely traumatic or terrifying situation. But what is PTSD, how can you learn to spot it, and what should you do if you think you have it? 

What is PTSD

Post traumatic stress disorder is a mental health condition that's triggered by experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. After such events, most people experience a range of symptoms including flashbacks, severe anxiety, nightmares and intrusive thoughts. However, these usually reduce over time as the brain assimilates what happened. 

In PTSD, these symptoms get worse and worse, to the stage where they affect how you live and work. In the worst cases, PTSD becomes all-consuming, completely taking over your life. For firefighters, the trigger is often something truly traumatic, such as witnessing the death of a colleague, or failing to rescue a child. But sometimes it can be cumulative over time, and the event that triggers it may seem trivial compared to previous traumas. 

PTSD signs and symptoms

There are several symptoms of PTSD to look out for. These can be grouped into avoidance behaviors, intrusive memories, negative thinking, and behavioral changes.


This happens when you consciously or unconsciously try to avoid thinking about the event or start avoiding places or situations that trigger bad memories. Sometimes, you may not be consciously aware of what you are doing. But family and friends may notice a change in your behavior.

Intrusive memories

PTSD sufferers often have intense flashbacks to the traumatic event they experienced. The event will often crop up in dreams and nightmares. Situations that trigger these memories may lead to severe emotional distress or even physical panic.

Negative thinking

People with PTSD often suffer from classic negative thinking. Key examples include:

  • Feeling a detachment from family and friends
  • Memory problems, including key details of the traumatic event
  • Feeling hopeless about the future
  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies that you used to enjoy
  • Feeling emotionally numb

Behavioral changes

You or your loved ones may also notice some behavioral and physical changes. These include being constantly on guard for danger, being easily startled, trouble with sleeping, loss of concentration, and unexpected outbursts of anger or aggression.

Getting help

Admitting you may have PTSD can be a big step. And it’s just the first step on the road to recovery. So, what can you do to get help?

The IAFF CoE hotline

One of the best sources of help for firefighters is the IAFF Center of Excellence. They run a 24/7 toll-free hotline for members or their loved ones who are worried about PTSD or other mental health problems. 

855-972-7905 | 24/7, Toll-Free, Completely Confidential

There is no right or wrong time to call and they guarantee complete anonymity. 

Other sources of help

Your family physician may be able to help you find help. Alternatively, there are other sources of help, including the 


Treatment for PTSD will depend on its severity and on you as an individual. Often, PTSD is treated with so-called talking therapies or counseling. You may be offered cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) or the related cognitive processing therapy (CPT). More recently, people have reported good results from an approach called Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). In some cases, you may be prescribed medication in the short term, but that is never a cure in itself.


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