By Jada Hudson
As a firefighter, your work keeps you busy—very busy. You are constantly on the move. Even when you’re sleeping, you’re ready to hop up and move whenever a call comes in. When you’re not working, your days off are busy. They are your chance to go on an adventure with your family or with friends. They are your chance to finish that project around the house. You like being busy. And, you’re really good at switching from one task to the next.
You move effortlessly from one thing to another, from working at the firehouse to tackling that chore at home. You’re responsible, and you love the feeling of having important things to do with your time. Your busy life makes you feel connected, empowered, and needed.
In our society, people respect those who are busy by saying things like, “You have so many talents!” and “I know you’re busy, so thanks for taking the time to help me with that.” Being busy is a badge of honor. And, whenever you find a minute to squeeze in one more thing, you get a little boost of satisfaction.
But, there are so many ways to spend your time. How do you decide? Fun has a strong appeal, so does productivity. You have obligations, and every time you say “yes” to something, you’re essentially saying “no” to something else. Sometimes, you feel great about it, and sometimes you’re frustrated by all the demands people put on you. You finish your days just exhausted. Being busy takes a lot of energy!
So, you sit down on the couch and watch a show so you can “let off steam” or “have some cave time,” but what you never get, the thing you’re missing out on that you may not even realize is missing, is space.
The Downside of Being Busy
Yes, being busy can be good. It can be productive and satisfying, but it lacks space for you just to be, to breathe, and to think. You may not think you need space, but the truth is that space is where you heal. Space is where your best thoughts arise. Space is where you gain clarity on your past. Space, if used right, is where you become emotionally well.
When you open up your schedule and allow yourself to go to bed at a reasonable time, one in which you actually have time to lay in bed and think or talk with your spouse; when you slow down your pace and just be with your family, even allowing yourself to be a little bored with them; or when you talk to a friend over coffee or meet with a peer supporter, you are giving yourself the opportunity to figure out your thoughts.
What if you don’t want to sort through your thoughts? This is actually a very common reason people keep themselves busy. A busy schedule can be a very effective escape from dealing with emotions. It can also be a very effective source of self-esteem and identity if you perceive that your talents are being successfully used. But pain or anger that gets stuffed down when we’re busy doesn’t just go away. It may surface in different areas of our lives.
As a firefighter, the things you have seen on the job, and maybe even the things you experienced in your childhood, can weigh on you. Rather than dealing with them, rather than facing a covert depression, it is common to hide behind a busy schedule. In fact, your busy schedule may be driving your body to produce endorphins and adrenaline to complete all the things you have to do. This physiological “high” created by your endorphins is a way that some people medicate pain and avoid depression.
Eventually, you will have to face your anger or pain. That may be when you retire, but eventually you will have space, and your thoughts and emotions will come to the surface. In the meantime, if you continue to “suck it up,” you may find that you are irritable or downright angry, hard to be around, anxious, excessively focused on performance measures, or even not able to contribute to your relationships in healthy ways.
Busy Isn’t Always Helpful
What would happen if, even for one week, you chose to become “un-busy”? Does it scare you to think about? Studies show that children who have less programmed activity and are allowed the time and space to become “bored” occasionally are often more creative, better at solving problems, and stronger at self-motivation later in life.1
Staying Busy and Neglecting Yourself
Firefighters are strong, and they enjoy projecting the image of competence and self-reliance. This can lead to an unhealthy denial of personal needs and problems. The problem with this picture is that your career is give-give-give. When you get home, you are still expected to love your family and give to them as well. Your whole life becomes based on how much and how well you can give. It’s nice to be needed, but what if you have nothing left to give? What if you have emptied the tank, and there’s nothing left in it?
When you don’t take care of yourself, it is like running on empty both in your job and in your family. When you are always busy without any rest or space, you end up wearing yourself out emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. You can hide depression for a while by staying busy, but eventually the people around you are going to notice.
It’s OK, though, because they want to help.
People who need you want you to be cared for. They want you to talk to someone. They want you to get enough sleep. They want you to have time to work out, hang out with friends, and relax. They want you to find healthy ways to process the pain you have seen in your job or your past. There are way too many unhealthy ways to cope, and your loved ones and peers want you to be emotionally well.
How to Stay Intentionally Un-Busy
Emotional wellness starts with protecting your time. Your time is your healing. Plan ahead. Before you jump into a project, allow yourself space to think about it from different angles, even allowing yourself to say no when someone wants something from you.
Did you know that one of the primary struggles of people with addictions is their inability to relax in healthy ways? Stress piles up in first responder careers. Your priority is finding ways to destress, relax, and give yourself space to be healthy.
Maybe you like to run. Maybe you like to take walks in nature. Maybe you like to hunt. Maybe you like to fish. Maybe you need a massage. Maybe you like to play golf or basketball. Maybe you like to work on an old car. Maybe you like to read. Maybe you just need to sleep. Maybe you need some time to meditate. Maybe you need to stretch or do yoga.
The main thing about giving yourself space isn’t about what you are doing, it is about what you are not doing. What are you saying no to that will allow you to have the space you need to think, care for yourself, and heal?
Your time is precious. Don’t fill it all up.
Jada Hudson, M.S., LCPC, CADC, is a licensed clinical professional counselor, certified alcohol and drug counselor, clinical director of program development for Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support, and clinical consultant for Operation Shattered Stars. Hudson is dedicated to helping firefighters process and heal from trauma, pediatric death, substance abuse, depression, and retirement transitions.