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Resilient Responders: Family and Friends

Dr. Rick Williamson
Consulting Psychologist, Headington Institute, 2015.


The nature of first responder work is often marked by exposure to physical danger, tragedy, randomness, suffering, and cruel inhumanity.

In this context, one’s daily survival may depend upon staying alert to the potential hazards. As a result, some responders function in a state of constant hyper-vigilance while on duty. This extreme physiological arousal becomes a daily reality for responders. While this arousal results in heightened awareness and alertness, it also fosters intense cohesive relations among the team. For example, many responders report being drawn to the sheer stimulation of the work, at work they experience humor as more funny, and the camaraderie feels more engaging.

However when responders go off-duty the physiological arousal reverses. Consequently, it is not uncommon for responders to experience exhaustion, detachment and apathy in the subsequent off-duty hours. When this off-duty state coincides with responders’ family time, it can exact a hefty toll on the quality of these important relationships.

Yet, keeping these relationships healthy is a key factor in responder resilience.

Below are a few tips to help responders successfully navigate the on- and off-duty cycle that can impact relationships over time.

  1.  The biological recovery process following on-duty functioning is normal. And, this process is facilitated when responders engage in a regular physical exercise regimen. This enables them to more quickly bounce back up to a normal arousal state where the energy to engage loved ones in healthy ways exists.
  2. It is important that responders and their families have a constructive framework for accurately understanding the off-duty shut down as a natural biological response. Responders should be reminded that engaging in family life is important. Families should know the importance of including the responder in regular family dinners, events, etc.
  3. If possible keep a normal routine around on- and off-duty times and rituals. A work schedule that is predictable so that family members know when to expect their loved one is much easier for children to deal with.
  4. Resist the use of alcohol and other substances as means to cope with the transition from work to home. Substances exert powerful effects that indeed work to alter feelings quickly, but this effectiveness can cause persons to rely on these methods to the exclusion of healthier coping. The healthiest coping strategies involve connecting with others, talking, physical exercise, etc.

Finally, there may be occasions when responders experience situations that override the coping reserves of the family. Community supports for responders and their families exist in many places and can be located through an online search. These supports can be instrumental in connecting responders and their families to communities experiencing similar realities.

Friend and family relationships outside the work environment are as vital to responder resilience as work relationships are vital to the safety and security for many responders. Therefore, these relationships must be nurtured if they are to continue to sustain responders and all family members involved. And, taking care of your relationships is one of the highest priorities in self-care if one is to continue to thrive over time.


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