PTSD police officers Australia

PTSD in first responders

Psychological therapy can help you recover from the cumulative effect of repeated exposure to critical incident stress in your role as a first responder.

Police psychologist

Challenges faced by first responders

Here at The Wellbeing Psychologist in Perth, we understand the challenges you may have faced – or are currently facing – as a police officer, first responder or member of the Australian Defence Force.

Our psychologists have years of experience working with service members, some having worked as sworn law enforcement officers, prior to their careers in psychology, while others have previously worked in law enforcement and military organisations in civilian roles.

‘Because of our experience in first responder organisations, we are in the best possible position to support your recovery.’
Dr Tarmala Caple

Psychologist Perth, The Wellbeing Psychologist

The impact of exposure to traumatic events

As a first responder you are regularly exposed to situations that are confronting, distressing and potentially life threatening, often numerous times in a single shift.

As a psychologist, we often see the cumulative effect of exposure to these events. It can take a toll on your physical, mental, emotional and social well-being. No matter how well-trained or
experienced you are in your role.

Everyone’s reaction to trauma is unique. Some people experience symptoms shortly after exposure to a traumatic event, while for others the impact can be delayed, occurring months or years later.

Acute reactions

We call it acute if your trauma reaction is immediate and occurs as a short-lived response to a traumatic event. Typically, you would experience this within the first few days to weeks after the event.

Some of our clients report:

  • Helplessness
  • Feeling emotional, teary or irritable
  • Feeling on edge and unable to relax
  • Problems getting to sleep or staying asleep
  • Nightmares
  • Thinking about the event often (flashbacks) OR
  • Avoiding any type of reminders of the event
  • Physical symptoms: increased fatigue, pain, upset stomach, headaches,…

These acute trauma reactions are normal. They are expected responses to trauma and most people are able to recover from them within a few days or weeks. If these symptoms persist for longer than a few weeks and they impact your ability to get on with life, you may be experiencing post traumatic stress.

It’s important to note that PTSD symptoms can vary in severity and they may not appear immediately after the traumatic event. You may not even develop symptoms until months or years after the event.’

Dr Tarmala Caple

Psychologist Perth, The Wellbeing Psychologist

And this is where the work of qualified and skilled psychologists with experience in the field of first responders, makes a difference. While acute trauma reactions do not necessarily indicate the development of PTSD, some people who experience acute trauma reactions may go on to develop PTSD if they do not receive appropriate support or have healthy ways to manage the impact”

Your prior exposure to trauma and stress, pre-existing mental health issues, the severity and nature of the traumatic event, the level of support after the event, the use of unhelpful coping strategies and exposure to other stressors after the event influence your risk of developing PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD

To be diagnosed with PTSD, a person must have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, or have experienced repeated or extreme exposure to aversive details of a traumatic event, as part of their professional responsibilities (e.g. first responders, military, forensic child abuse investigators) and have symptoms that persist for at least a month. The symptoms of PTSD include:

  • 1. Re-experiencing the event by having intrusive thoughts, nightmares, or flashbacks.
  • 2. Avoiding any thoughts or feelings related to events or people, places, or activities that remind the person of the traumatic event or how they felt at the time.
  • 3. Negative changes in mood or thoughts such as having negative thoughts or feelings about themselves, others, or the world around them. Experiencing feelings of guilt or blame related to the traumatic event are also common.
  • 4. Increased arousal and hypervigilance leading to feeling on edge, being easily startled, or having difficulty sleeping or concentrating.

In addition to these symptoms, intense anger, risk-taking and self-destructive behaviour, feeling emotionally detached from others, excessive use of drugs or alcohol, difficulty seeing a future and suicide ideation are also common in those who experience PTSD.

PTSD police officers Australia

PTSD police officers Australia

When should I seek help?

PTSD is serious. It’s a debilitating condition. And it can have a significant impact on your personal and professional life as a first responder.

Some of the potential long-term effects of PTSD include:

PTSD police officers Australia
  • Increased risk of substance abuse: As a police officer with PTSD, you may turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with your symptoms. It can then obviously lead to addiction and other health problems.
  • Relationship problems: PTSD in police officers can make it difficult to form or maintain close relationships. It can put a strain on your connection with your partner, children or loved ones.
  • Occupational problems: We also see that PTSD can cause direct problems in your police work, with difficulties functioning on the force, poor job performance, disciplinary actions and even job loss all on the horizon as indirect consequences of untreated stress disorders.
  • Physical health problems: Not taking care of your mental health can lead to physical consequences: chronic pain, gastrointestinal problems and other medical conditions.
  • Suicide risk: It’s a sad reality that police officers with PTSD have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviours compared to the general population.
  • Depression and anxiety: Stress disorder can increase the risk of depression and anxiety disorders. Again, these would impact your work as a police officer, and your ability to function at work and in your personal life.

As you can see, PTSD is a complex condition. It needs to be diagnosed by a trained and experienced mental health professional.

The reality is that PTSD is a treatable condition. As with other physical or psychological issues, the earlier treatment is sought, the higher the likelihood of recovery.

Signs of PTSD?

Let’s look at the signs of PTSD in both physical appearance and behaviour.

Physical signs of PTSD

  • Feeling tired – exhausted even
  • Vomiting and nausea
  • Twitches
  • Breathing difficulties
  • Chest pain & pounding heart
  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension
  • Upset bowels (diarrhoea)

Behavioural signs of PTSD

  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Emotional outbursts
  • Risk-taking and acting without a care for your safety
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Insomnia, nightmares,
  • Avoiding crowds, busy places, certain people or places

Emotional signs of PTSD

  • Anxiety or panic, guilt and fear
  • Higher levels of irritability
  • Depression and negativity, hopelessness
  • Agitation and intense anger
  • Apprehension
All emotional symptoms
  • Feeling numb
  • Intrusive thoughts or memories of the traumatic event
  • Flashbacks
  • Difficulty recalling specific aspects of the traumatic event or experiencing gaps in memory related to the trauma
  • Negative beliefs and expectations: about oneself, others, or the world, such as feeling worthless, unlovable, or believing that the world is dangerous and unpredictable
  • A tendency to blame oneself or others excessively for the traumatic event, leading to feelings of guilt, shame, or anger
  • Trouble focusing on tasks, conversations, or daily activities due to intrusive thoughts or emotional distress
  • Difficulty making decisions or feeling overwhelmed by everyday choices
  • Persistent and repetitive thinking about the traumatic event, its causes, and consequences
PTSD police officers Australia

How is PTSD treated?

Treating PTSD in first responders

Treating PTSD in first responders is about helping you manage the impact of trauma. The expert consensus is that treatment needs to be trauma-focused. This means that the therapy specifically focuses on addressing the psychological effects of traumatic experiences. This type of therapy often involves specialised techniques and interventions that are tailored to address the trauma memories and the associated changes that occur to your thinking, emotions and behaviour.

Three therapies with a strong evidence base for their effectiveness are Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (TF-CBT), Cognitive Reprocessing therapy, and Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). Each of these therapies directly addresses the traumatic memories, however in different ways.

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy

Trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy (TF-CBT) focuses on the cognitive and emotional processing of traumatic events. The therapy involves several components, including psychoeducation, relaxation techniques, cognitive restructuring, exposure therapy, and the development of coping skills. The therapy aims to help you understand your trauma-related symptoms, develop coping skills, and change negative beliefs about yourself, others, and the world. Exposure therapy involves gradually exposing the client to the traumatic memory or reminders of the trauma in a safe and controlled environment.

Cognitive Processing Therapy

Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) is a form of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) that focuses on helping you process and reframe your thoughts about traumatic experiences. Typically, CPT consists of 12 sessions, during which you learn to recognize and modify their thoughts, beliefs, and emotions related to the traumatic event, ultimately promoting recovery.


EMDR involves holding the memory, negative thoughts, emotions and bodily sensations in mind while following the therapist’s fingers or engaging in other tasks. The dual attention that the eye movements or other tasks create, facilitates the processing of the traumatic memory into existing knowledge networks, therefore, helping you process the trauma.

‘There is emerging evidence that yoga and mindfulness can be effective in reducing PTSD symptoms, yet at the same time they are not a substitute for EMDR and CBT as evidence-based treatment options’
Dr Tarmala Caple

Psychologist Perth, The Wellbeing Psychologist

What if it’s not you that needs help, but a loved one?

If you are a partner or a family member of a first responder with PTSD, you play a critical role in supporting them through difficult times. We know that PTSD can have a significant impact on the entire family. Living with a family member with PTSD can lead to stress, confusion, frustration, fear, and worry.

You may be confronted with changes in your loved one’s behaviour such as mood swings, emotional detachment or irritability and anger. It can be difficult to understand and cope with these changes. Many relationships break down under the strain of PTSD and chronic stress.

At The Wellbeing Psychologist, we provide support and resources to family members of first responders with PTSD. We can help you cope as a family, depending on the individual challenges you face.

A supportive and understanding family environment is as important as professional help in the recovery process.

“It’s your reaction to adversity, not adversity itself that determines how your life’s story will develop.”

– Dieter F. Uchtdorf