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New Study Reveals Anger Management Helps Northern Ireland Fire Fighters Handle Stress

Originally Published 02 July 2003

A recent study from the University of Warwick of fire-fighters in Northern Ireland reveals that anger management training can help emergency personnel deal with stressful events. Also, those who feel they have little control over their lives and avoid dealing emotionally or practically with traumatic incidents are more likely to suffer psychological stress.

Dr Stephen Joseph’s paper entitled “Incident –Related Stressors, Locus of Control, Coping, and Psychological Distress” examines stress coping techniques used by fire-fighters. It analyses psychological assessments by 300 fire-fighters who, as part of their duties, have dealt with the aftermath of violence and been exposed to traumatic incidents.

Dr Stephen Joseph’s research shows psychological distress in emergency personnel is related to an individual having a sense of lacking the power to shape his or her life. Those who feel their life is directed by ‘powerful others’ are more likely to become distressed.

Avoidance coping, or trying to deal with events by keeping problems hidden, masking feelings or by inappropriately displaying anger is associated with greater stress. This suggests emergency services would benefit from training in coping skills, such as anger management, emotional disclosure and relaxation training. Some forms of counselling and psychotherapy might also be helpful for some people.

The study also shows the extent of exposure to traumatic events is related to the severity of distress, and the most appropriate coping method is dependent on degree of trauma. When a stress-causing incident is not chronic, emotion-focused coping, such as positive thinking or participating in social activities with friends, can lead to positive reappraisal and finding meaning.

However, some events are so stressful that personality type has little influence on stress levels. When subjected to highly intensive traumatic incidents, such as attending an incident where children have been killed there are very few who can resist stress and will not be affected in some way. The extent of distress afterwards is related to how the person copes with their experiences, and the more a person covers up their problems rather than deal with them, the more distressed they are.

However, task-focused coping, such as information seeking, taking forward-looking action and drawing on support from colleagues can aid recovery from extremely distressing events.

Dr Stephen Joseph, from the University of Warwick, said: “This study shows how emergency services are gravely affected by conflict, and that people cope differently with harrowing events. Practically, the findings can be used to help other members of emergency services, such as the police or ambulance services to help them deal with the rigours psychologically distressing incidents. It’s only to be expected that emergency personnel will sometimes be deeply affected themselves by the human tragedies they encounter, and it’s important that people who work in these services have psychological support available to them.”

For more information contact: Dr Stephen Joseph, Department of Psychology, University of Warwick, Mobile: 0786 780 0320, Tel: 02476 528 182 Jenny Murray, Assistant Press officer, University of Warwick, Tel: 0247 6574 255, Mobile: 07876 217740

“Incident –Related Stressors, Locus of Control, Coping, and Psychological Distress Among Fire-fighters in Northern Ireland” is co-written by Jill Brown and Gerry Mulhern, Queen’s University Belfast and is published in “Journal of Traumatic Stress”, Vol. 15, No2