If life is in danger

Beyond Blue 24/7 crisis support

Fortem Australia during business hours



First responders are exposed to traumatic events and exercise immense resilience in the face of stress. Contending with organisational stressors including unpredictable environments, long shifts, lengthy or repeated assignments and extended periods of service in response to disasters can affect the wellbeing of first responders, sometimes more than the work itself. Likewise, limited debriefing and recovery time, hierarchical management structures, and lack of recognition have been shown to further impact wellbeing.

Families of first responders travel this journey too, experiencing worries and helping to ‘carry the load’ when members are on duty. We also know that not only the events themselves, but the anticipation and perception of the events in the months preceding and following can lead to stress, anxiety, depression, and social challenges.

In first responder organisations, some warning signs/ risk factors to be aware of include high or increased: staff turnover, absenteeism, safety issues, workloads, cultural challenges, martyr culture and/ or perceptions of seeking help as ‘selfish’.
Signs may also include low or decreased: efficiency, morale, productivity, institutional knowledge, respect/ understanding of vicarious trauma and uncertainty, respect for outside influences and/ or attempts to help or intervene

First responders are typically wired to anticipate and prepare for any given scenario. This can also mean that their family members become wired to worry about their loved ones who go out into the world to protect others in the line of
duty. As such, both first responders and their families can experience anxiety in some form.

As humans, we have the capacity to tolerate quite a lot. But sometimes, when our nervous system, minds, and bodies are exhausted, we can turn to unhelpful coping mechanisms to get us through the day. Having more information about
possible warning signs and coping mechanisms may assist with better communication, support and coping. It is likely that if as a first responder, if you are experiencing a level of anxiety about current or upcoming events, then your family is too.


It is natural that you experience one or many of the following at some point – following stressful or traumatic events, or in response to caring for someone who is a first responder.

It is important to recognise when these warning signs start to become persistent and shape our daily thinking and behaviour.



  • Fatigue, stress, overwhelm, high
    rates of sickness and days
  • Checking out, being mentally absent
  • Drinking to wind down,
    difficulty remaining still,
  • Shortness of breath (anxiety
    making it difficult for the
    nervous system to relax)
    Sweating / racing heart (from worry, stress and fear which accelerate the breath)
  • Muscle tension in neck,
    shoulders, jaw
  • Upset stomach / loss of


  • Angry outbursts and changes in patience / tolerance
  • Increased sense of isolation Avoiding / withdrawing from
    others. Decreased social life
  • Reduced confidence/ trust, questioning self and others, feeling unsafe
  • Strong feeling that ‘something isn’t right’
  • Unwanted and unpredictable
    thoughts or flashbacks
  • Difficulty switching off or
  • Feeling disinterested in and disengaged from self, others and things that usually give you meaning


  • Not scheduling events due to uncertainty around first responder’s attendance
  • Not wanting to go alone
  • Not knowing how to navigate conversations with others about partner’s absence
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Nervousness leading up to the social event/ cancelling at the last minute
Dealing with Uncertainty image1


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It can be helpful to shift focus from the assignment during breaks or time off (e.g., calling loved ones back home or leaving the disaster site for a brief time).
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Anything is better than nothing. Share the parts that you can. This keeps the lines of communication open and maintains connection to each other. Reframe: Focus on changing the way you think and speak about situations to change the outcome. E.g., “asking for help is a sign of courage/strength” “I will start seeing a mental health professional”
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Being included is part of the process of remaining connected. For support networks – invite your first responder to events even if unsure whether they can attend. Find ways to record events and share those memories (pictures, videos). For first responders – when not on call, schedule meaningful events and get involved in daily experiences.



Adjust your expectations to acknowledge (potential) burnout and find moments to put your needs first – whether through rest, connection, movement, or whatever is nourishing and restoring of your energy.

It is ideal to practice mindfulness / meditation when you are not experiencing heightened levels of fear or worry – so that it is easier to use these skills when most needed. Recognise what you are feeling or thinking, allow those experiences some space, understand what they are about, and show yourself some kindness in response.


Allow your senses to bring you to the present moment. Begin by naming 5 things you can see, and 5 things you can feel. This can be as simple as the window in your room or the clothing on your skin.

It can help to incorporate the other senses, too – naming things you can hear, smell, and taste.

You can take 1 minute or a few.

Can be done sitting comfortably, or walking as you count the steps and notice your surroundings.

Dealing with Uncertainty image2



We can manage physiological anxiety with controlled breathing. Match your in breath (4 seconds or more) to your out breath. Count slowly as you breathe in and then slowly as you breath out. Do not pause between breaths.


Notice which parts of your body feel tense. Bring a soft awareness to that part of your body (especially shoulders, feet, hands,  stomach). Tense one part on your breath in and relax when you breathe out. Also notice if your tongue it sits at the roof of your mouth, and let it relax to
encourage your cheeks and jaw to follow suit.

Dealing with Uncertainty image3

Acknowledge thoughts and worries, even if unpleasant. Accepting the
situation and the role of yourself/ your loved one in service.
Implement strategies to make life easier for you so that when situations
come up which elicit a stress response, you know how to manage these.
For example, if attending an event without a
partner, know what to say when asked by others,
own the challenge, and develop a new
version of what that
looks like.

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