Destructive Coping Mechanisms in First Responders
First responders are subject to high levels of stress on the job, which can affect their ability to function both on the job and in personal relationships. The link between first responder stress and addictive behavior is clear. However, addictions can come in many forms, and non-substance abusing habits can often be as destructive as using drugs or alcohol.
Stress and Behavioral Problems
A number of studies indicate that first responders are more vulnerable to developing an addiction than the general population1. These individuals are often engaged in situations where people may have died or been grievously injured. Noise, chaos and uncontrolled behavior are often a part of the job. Even the first responders themselves may be in physical danger as they work.
This elevated state of stress causes disturbances in the chemical makeup of the brain. The “fight-or-flight” hormones and other neurotransmitters lead to automatic responses in both the body and the mind. In order to deal with the intense sensations and feelings generated by these chaotic incidents, first responders may seek out ways to distract themselves and may engage in behaviors that produce soothing chemicals in the brain.
If they have developed post-traumatic stress disorder from working in horrendous circumstances, individuals may look to drugs or alcohol to manage symptoms and provide relief from the recurring memories.
Non-Substance Destructive Coping Mechanisms
An addiction does not necessary involve using a substance that is illegal or socially unacceptable. Uncontrollable impulses can develop in regard to many different types of behavior, such as video game playing, watching pornography, eating or other habits.
An addiction has developed when the habit becomes a compulsive use of substance or activity that detracts from your ability to function in a major area of your life2. A benign habit can become an addiction quickly when the feeling of overwhelming stress changes brain chemistry, which in turn changes behavior.
Gambling is often thought of as a harmless habit that that allows individuals to blow off steam in a controlled and enjoyable manner that is not anti-social or destructive. However, for some people, it can become an addiction and can cause them to lose savings, homes and relationships due to uncontrollable gambling impulses. First responders often choose gambling as a stress-relieving pastime because it allows them to socialize with others and completely diverts their attention from the stress they normally experience on the job.
Shopping can be a compelling diversion from disturbing thoughts of high-intensity work. The shopper can enjoy engaging in the search for appealing goods for hours, indulging in the colors and textures of new items and can then get repeated emotional payoffs purchasing the desirable items for their needs.
However, shopping addiction can quickly become a compulsive need to buy items, whether they are needed or not, which can lead to debt problems, conflicts with loved ones and loss of self-esteem.
Sex as a Destructive Coping Mechanism
Some individuals look to sex to provide relief from the feelings of chronic stress. In fact, the thrill of the chase and subsequent satisfaction can provide a significant diversion from thoughts of the first responder’s high-intensity work. However, the constant need to find new partners can be detrimental to forming long-term, satisfying relationships and can cause continual disruptions in their personal lives.
Addictive behavior is frequently used to escape unpleasant thoughts and emotions and to soothe physical distress. However, these destructive coping mechanisms can often become a destructive influence that leads to financial hardship, legal entanglements and damage to personal relationships.