When Your Loved One is a First Responder

July 28, 2020

As the daughter of an emergency room nurse, I write this with an empathic heart to all families and individuals dealing with the current COVID-19 epidemic. It’s especially stressful for those who have family members who are first responders; medical personnel, police officers, rescuers, military officials, and other related professionals. Let’s not forget individuals still working at food establishments, public works employees, and other essential personnel during this time. There’s uncertainty, very real risk, and a lack of clear information about how to emotionally respond.

It’s important to remember that amongst the wave of emotions, dealing with our feelings and stress in a healthy way is critical. Humans are social beings, meaning we rely on one another for connection. Our emotions (unconsciously or consciously) influence one another. If emotions aren’t handled properly, it can negatively impact both of you. Poor emotion regulation can result in many issues, specifically causing conflict or increasing anxiety. Stress has negative effects to the immune system, inadvertently increasing the risk and for the first responder/essential personnel and their family members.

You may be experiencing pain, anger, frustration, anxiety, stress, and other emotions related to your loved ones mandatory contact with other people during the pandemic. These feelings can range widely in intensity and frequency. Be aware that these feelings are a normal protective response and your feelings are valid. Establish precaution systems [expectations and rules for coming+going from work to minimize potential spreading] and communicate about how these will be carried out. By communicating ahead of time, it can prevent misunderstandings and ease worries to give more control to both parties through mutual understanding. As a result, a plan like this ensures that there is an agreed upon measures in place for decreasing the risk of exposure. Example: taking shoes off in the driveway, communicating to everyone in the family not to touch the shoes.

Having a mutual understanding that there should be no greetings for anyone in a physical way. Explain this ahead of time so that children and partners know that the distance is a safety precaution and for everyone’s safety. It may spare the confusing, potentially startling, or angry reaction a parent has when their young child excitedly tries to run in for a hug at their arrival. If there are elderly parents or other family members with health problems, try to remain flexible and be aware that the dynamics, roles, and expectations in the household may temporarily change to accommodate for everyone’s safety. Being mindful and communicating is so important.

Big and challenging conversations may need to be put on hold while you deal with the current circumstance. If it’s not an urgent issue, don’t push to address it. Remember that there are many different ways of coping in stressful situations and your way isn’t the only way. Being respectful (even if you differ dramatically) about how your loved one decides to talk about it and deal with it will increase healthy communication in the family. An example, some people prefer to be more mindful and present to cope. Others feel better when they talk it out. Coping can look very different from person to person.

Respect emotional boundaries. It’s tough to watch the ones we love take risks to their health and well-being. However, it’s important to take care of your emotional needs so that they do not negatively impact your family member. Some examples of this could be expressing excessive virus-related worry to the point of panicking your family member. If possible, hold emotional space for one another to express these feelings and thoughts in a productive way. It’s difficult for both parties involved, and holding space for your essential personnel family member is important.

According to the CDC resource – Emergency Responders: Tips for taking care of yourself, Responders experience stress during a crisis. When stress builds up it can cause burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress. Look out for signs demonstrated by your loved one to ensure they get the help they need if they do. Strategies such as eating healthy foods, exercising, taking breaks, and using the buddy system can help prevent and reduce burnout and Secondary Traumatic Stress.

Burnout – feelings of extreme exhaustion and being overwhelmedSecondary Traumatic Stress – stress reactions and symptoms resulting from exposure to another individual’s traumatic experiences, rather than from exposure directly to a traumatic event.
• Sadness, depression, or apathy
• Easily frustrated
• Blaming of others, irritability
• Lacking feelings, indifferent
• Isolation or disconnection from others
• Poor self-care
• Tired, exhausted, or overwhelmed
• Feeling like a failure, nothing you can do will help, you are not doing your job well, or you need alcohol/other drugs to cope.
• Excessive worry or fear about something bad happening
• Easily startled or “on guard” all of the time
• Physical signs of stress (e.g. racing heart)
• Nightmares or recurrent thoughts about the traumatic situation
• Feeling that others’ trauma is yours

Council for Relationships is currently providing free mental health services frontline workers and essential personnel through its Council Cares for the Community Fund. Services are available to healthcare providers (including doctors, nurses, and other medical facility staff), police officers, firefighters, corrections officers, grocery store workers, transit workers, and other essential workers in PA & NJ. Council’s team of expert therapists and psychiatrists.

Frontline workers can receive support from highly qualified therapists or psychiatrists by visiting https://councilforrelationships.org/thosewhocare and completing the application.