Dr Kristen Hamling is a trauma psychologist with Wellbeing Aotearoa in New Zealand. Dr Hamling spoke at Fortem’s summit – Beyond Duty – what is the bigger picture in first responder wellbeing? about how we can work together to recover from trauma.
The words below are an abridged version of the conversation she led at Beyond Duty:
Being a first responder is not a normal job. Regular exposure to pain and suffering is affecting them, and we need to do better in helping.
There’s a great New Zealand proverb, He Waka Eke Noa, which means ‘we’re all in this canoe together’.
In the first responder community, that means coming together and drawing on each of our strengths, so that we can row together. This will get us a lot further in first responder wellbeing than if we each keep working separately.
Traditionally we’ve looked at treating mental health conditions, like PTSD, which affect first responders and are also taken home. The family members of first responders are at an increased risk of PTSD themselves.
We’re now much more interested in how to prevent these conditions. One step in doing this is understanding what’s happening to the body during a time of trauma.
What happens in the brain during a trauma
When the brain is functioning well, we are in what’s called the Window of Tolerance. This is where the ‘rest and digest’ process happens, it’s where we feel safe, and it’s where trauma processing occurs.
When we are exposed to chronic stress and trauma, we move outside of our Window of Tolerance, and our perspective narrows to solve a specific problem – this is great in an emergency, but not back at the station and not at home with the family.
In this time, the brain’s prefrontal cortex goes offline. This starts to create problems: we lose a sense of perspective and the ability to problem solve. This change also wires us to disconnect from others.
When we stay in this state for too long, we experience chronic stress. This creates too much cortisol in the brain, which kills brain cells, and keeps us in a state of alarm.
Not addressing trauma creates huge problems for our mental and physical health.
How to approach recovery from a trauma
First responders need a lot more time to recover from trauma.
That recovery time will mean the Window of Tolerance becomes part of muscle memory well before they get into an emergency or traumatic situation, which means it’s easier to get back into that state.
This is not just about the brain. We need to look after our physical wellbeing, social wellbeing, mental and emotional wellbeing, and spiritual wellbeing – these are like the four walls of a house and, if one of those four pillars falls down, everything is out of balance.
Looking after ourselves means sleeping, nourishing ourselves, exercising, and connecting with others. It also means finding other parts to your identity; interests outside of work that fill your bucket.
First responders: this job will affect you, so you need to be prepared. Find the people who can support you – including peer support or a psychologist – so that you can build up that Window of Tolerance muscle memory way before a crisis develops.
If we keep first responders well, then we will build up camaraderie, reduce conflict, and we will get into the canoe and row in union because we recognise each other’s strengths.
There’s much more to this conversation, click play to watch…
More about our speaker:
Dr Kristen Hamling – Wellbeing Aotearoa, New Zealand.
Dr Kristen Hamling has worked as a trauma psychologist for over 15 years with civilian, military and emergency service populations.
She was a uniformed Army Reserve and Australian Defence Force Psychologist for 8 years and continues to support organisations following significant traumatic events.
Through Wellbeing Aotearoa on the north island of New Zealand, Kristen’s vision is to support wellbeing from the ground up – guiding organisations and individuals on how to establish strong foundations for wellbeing.
Further recordings from ‘Beyond Duty’ will be published to the Fortem Australia website over the coming weeks. The community is invited to share those recourses widely, be agents for change themselves and keep the conversation and connection going.