First responders (e.g. law enforcement, paramedics, ER medical staff, firefighters, and crisis/disaster response professionals) are, as their name implies, the first feet on the ground during an emergency. These courageous individuals are regularly exposed to death, pain, and injury. Throughout it all, they’re required to stay calm and clearheaded—no matter the circumstances. Dealing with that level of daily stress is incredibly hard on the mind and body, not to mention the toxins and brain injuries they are often exposed to. As such, first responders are more predisposed to experience depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse, headaches, chronic pain, concussions, and sleep issues.
This population takes on these risks to their own life and health in order to help and protect others when they need it most. At NeuroGrove, we understand how the chronic stress, traumatic experiences, and environmental factors these groups face can affect their brain-body wellness and overall day-to-day functioning. We recognize the unique and individual needs of first responders and do our best to help them not only heal, but also optimize their performance, in the most efficient and effective manner possible.
first responder brain patterns
Many first responders report psychological and physical challenges related to the work they do. While the brain and body are designed to cope with fear, stress, and danger, they’re not designed to stay in these activated states for prolonged periods of time. For first responders, chronic exposure to trauma and crises mean that the neurophysiological systems related to keeping an individual safe are constantly in over-drive. The brain’s stress response system, the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, is especially thrown out of whack by prolonged, repeated exposure to stress.
The hypothalamus is a gland of the limbic system and the master control switch of the autonomic nervous system, activating both the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses. It releases a chemical messenger that signals the pituitary gland to secrete a hormone that then travels to the adrenal glands, where stress hormones (e.g. cortisol and adrenaline) are released. The job of these stress hormones is to prepare the body for fight, flight, or freeze. However, in the case of chronic stress, the HPA axis is overstimulated and the body can secrete too many of these stress hormones, causing brain cells to age more rapidly and contributing to cognitive and emotional impairments.
Repeated exposure to high levels of stress not only affects the functioning of the brain, but also physically change the structure of certain regions. Brain imaging of those with trauma histories often shows increased activity within the amygdala (related to emotions) and a smaller hippocampus (related to learning and memory).
As a consequence, the brain can start producing heightened reactions to stress and never fully come down to healthy, relaxed state. When the sympathetic nervous system is activated, it initiates physiological responses commonly associated with anxiety, like faster heart rate, sweating, and shallow breathing, and fails to effectively engage maintenance processes like digesting food, immune function (e.g., fighting off viruses and other environmental pathogens), and reproducting (e.g., healthy libido).
For first responders, it can sometimes be hard to flip the stress switch off after work and their bodies may remain in these heightened, hypervigilant states, even when they’re safe at home or enjoying time with their loved ones. This can also impact their work on the job, as their rational thinking might become impaired under high levels of stress, leading to mistakes, violence, freezing, and/or irrational behavior. Over time, the physical damage their brain incurs can also impair their memory, reaction times, and processing speed.
I was hesitant to do counseling, but neurofeedback didn’t have as much stigma attached to it, so I figured I’d give it a try. I’m truly amazed at the difference it has made! I’m no longer on edge all the time, I’m less reactive to stress, and my relationship with my wife has gotten much better.
How we can help
We’re passionate about supporting the emotional, mental, and physical needs of first responders and will work closely with you to design a treatment plan that addresses you as a whole person. At NeuroGrove, the first step of any treatment package is a comprehensive assessment that includes QEEG brain mapping, swLORETA 3D neuroimaging, a neurocognitive assessment, brain-body wellness assessment, and a thorough discussion of symptoms and goals. From there, Dr. Bell designs a protocol specific to your brain’s needs and the goals you have for our work together.
Neurostimulation and neurofeedback can be used to increase neuroplasticity, address any brain imbalances, enhance the functioning of specific regions, and improve mental clarity and flexibility. We offer both in person and remote neurofeedback services to support you in your goals and optimize your training experience.
Biofeedback, movement therapy, and mindfulness training are also great tools for gaining more control over emotional regulation and physiological responses like heart rate, breathing, and muscle tension. Such skills will help you to stay regulated and aware, both in and outside of work. Furthermore, we will provide extensive education and support to help you provide your brain with the nutrients it needs, reduce neuroinflammation and toxicity, boost the growth of new neurons, and address other factors related to brain wellness.
Additionally, we offer a number of other virtual and in-person services to provide a whole-person, whole-system approach, including nutrition and wellness coaching, movement therapies, mindfulness training, psychotherapy, and extensive online education. Whichever services you choose to engage with, we will work collaboratively with you to address your goals from an integrative lens so you can optimize your brain, improve your quality of life, and maximize your potential!
What the research says
We are beginning to see neurotherapy and integrative interventions being increasingly used to support first responders. Some organizations, like hospitals and fire stations, are starting to offer these services to their employees to help them manage the stress of the job, prevent burnout, and optimize their performance. While research specific to using neurotherapy with first responders is ever-developing, there already exists a wealth of evidence supporting its effectiveness in minimizing PTSD, stress, and anxiety symptoms, as well as helping the brain heal from concussions. For more information, please see our Research page.
- Bracciano, A,G., Chang, W-P., Kokesh, S. (2012). Cranial electrotherapy stimulation in the treatment of posttraumatic stress disorder: A pilot study of two military veterans. Journal of Neurotherapy.
- Currie, C. L., Remley, T. P., & Craigen, L. (2014). Treating trauma survivors with neurofeedback: A grounded theory study. NeuroRegulation, 1(3–4), 219.
- Foster, D. S., & Thatcher, R. W. (2015). Surface and LORETA neurofeedback in the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and mild traumatic brain injury. In R. W. Thatcher & D. S. Foster (Eds.), Z score neurofeedback: Clinical applications (pp. 59–92). San Diego, CA: Academic Press.
- Kluetsch, R., Ros, T., Theberge, J., Frewen, P., Schmahl, C., & Lanius, R. (2012). Increased default mode network connectivity following EEG neurofeedback in PTSD. In International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS) 28th Annual Meeting: Innovations to Expand Services and Tailor Traumatic Stress Treatments, November 1-3, 2012, Los Angeles, CA [Abstracts]. International Society for Traumatic Stress Studies (ISTSS). Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1037/e533652013-382
- Lanius, R. A., Frewen, P. A., Tursich, M., Jetly, R., & McKinnon, M. C. (2015). Restoring large-scale brain networks in PTSD and related disorders: A proposal for neuroscientifically-informed treatment interventions. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 6. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.3402/ejpt.v6.27313
- Mills, Z. L. (2012). Neurofeedback experiences of clients with hyperarousal symptoms associated with PTSD. The University of the Rockies. Retrieved from http://gradworks.umi.com/35/44/3544522.html
- Othmer, S., & Othmer, S. F. (2009). Post traumatic stress disorder: The neurofeedback remedy. Biofeedback, 37(1), 24–31.
- Russo, G. M., Novian, D. A. (2014). A Research Analysis of Neurofeedback Protocols for PTSD and Alcoholism. Journal of NeuroRegulation, 1(2), 183-186.