Key Takeaways

    • Engaging in self-care activities is an essential practice for safeguarding your physical and mental well-being—particularly in times of stress.
    • Unique and specialized practices complement basic self-care strategies to boost recovery healing.
    • Engaging in sensory grounding, mind-body practices, creative activities, journaling, or social/group support can help you navigate your journey of recovery.
What are my options beyond basic lifestyle changes?

Your basic strategies, or lifestyle-based self-care approaches, include adequate sleep, healthy diet, exercise, stress management, and avoidance of alcohol, tobacco, and other substances. The following content explores more specialized strategies for self-care and how to practice them.

Sensory grounding

When you find yourself feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed by your emotions, it can be helpful to identify sensory experiences that provide quick relief from stressors. By exploring different sensations, you can discover what works best for you to relax and reduce feelings of stress.

  • Experiment with sensory experiences: Take the time to experiment with different sensory experiences, and pay attention to how quickly your stress levels decrease. For example, if you enjoy music, listen to a variety of artists and genres until you find a song that instantly relaxes you. Explore different sensory inputs such as sound, movement, touch, taste, and smell to find what brings you the most comfort and relaxation.

  • The 5-4-3-2-1 technique: This exercise engages your senses and brings your attention to the present, helping to reduce anxiety and bring a sense of calm.
    • Notice 5 things you see around you.
    • Notice 4 things you can touch or feel.
    • Notice 3 things you can hear around you.
    • Notice 2 things you can smell.
    • Notice 1 thing you can taste.

  • Create your own sensory toolbox: Choose items that you find effective in relieving stress. Consider things like a stress ball, essential oils, soothing music, a soft blanket, or comforting foods. Having a variety of options at your disposal allows you to choose something that works for you, no matter where you are or what you’re experiencing.
Mindfulness, meditation, and yoga

Experiencing traumatic events as a first responder can have a significant impact on our ability to learn, remember, and regulate our emotions. When processing trauma, incorporating meditation or mindfulness practices can be beneficial. These techniques aim to cultivate awareness of the present moment and help you find a sense of calm. 

Meditation is a powerful tool to navigate uncomfortable thoughts and memories by allowing them to arise and pass without judgment. By regularly practicing meditation, you can develop a heightened awareness of your bodily sensations, thoughts, and emotions. This increased self-awareness promotes healing and facilitates a healthier relationship with your internal experiences.

Mindfulness practices, such as yoga, can help reduce physiological arousal and provide a much-needed respite during heightened emotions or stress, particularly if these stressful events are a common occurrence as a first responder. Mindful movement and focusing on the breath can help regulate the nervous system and promote a sense of stability and relaxation. Mindfulness practices work best when integrated into a comprehensive treatment plan, working in collaboration with mental health professionals for a tailored approach to your healing process.

These practices can help you navigate the impact of trauma, enhance your ability to regulate emotions, cope with stress, and improve overall well-being. Exploring guided meditations, vetted mindfulness apps, or meditation classes can provide helpful guidance and support.

Example: Mindfulness/meditation exercise

Remember, meditation is not about achieving a perfect state of mind or eliminating all thoughts. It’s a practice of gentle observation and acceptance. Be patient with yourself and cultivate self-compassion. Start with a five- to ten-minute session and gradually increase the length of the session as you become more comfortable. 

    • Find a quiet and comfortable space where you can relax without distractions. 
    • Sit in a position that feels comfortable for you, either cross-legged on a cushion or in a chair with your feet planted firmly on the ground. 
    • Close your eyes gently or maintain a soft gaze, whatever feels more comfortable for you. This helps to direct your attention inward.
    • Focus on your breath. Observe the natural flow of inhaling and exhaling. Notice the sensation of the breath as it enters and leaves your body. 
    • Be present in the moment. As thoughts, emotions, or sensations arise, acknowledge them without judgment and let them pass. When your mind wanders, refocus on your breath. 
    • Engage your senses to enhance your meditation practice and anchor you in the present moment. Pay attention to the sounds around you, the sensation of your body sitting, the temperature of the air, etc.
    • To conclude your meditation, slowly bring your attention back to your surroundings. Gently open your eyes. Take a moment to transition back to your regular activities.
Creative and expressive outlets

Engaging in creative outlets can play a significant role in self-care following a traumatic event. They offer an effective means of expression by tapping into different areas of the brain, allowing you to process trauma in a unique and therapeutic way. They serve as alternative avenues for emotional release and can have a positive impact on your overall well-being. 

Many creative endeavors can offer relief from anxiety and irritability. Creative therapies have been shown to foster resilience. Music, for instance, has the power to evoke emotions and influence mood. It can bring about feelings of happiness, sadness, relaxation, or motivation. Listening to or creating music can provide a profound sense of connection and release, allowing you to express and process complex emotions associated with traumatic experiences.

By incorporating creative outlets into your self-care routine, you not only provide yourself with a healthy means of expression but also promote personal growth and healing. These activities can serve as a form of self-empowerment, allowing you to regain a sense of control and find solace in the process of creation. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to engage in creative expression, so explore different mediums and find what resonates with you.

Explore creative hobbies that interest you. Consider:

    • Painting 
    • Crafting
    • Cooking
    • Writing songs, poetry, etc.
    • Learning to play an instrument
    • Singing in a choir
    • Woodworking
    • Model railroading
    • Sewing
    • Crocheting or other needlework

Journaling can be a valuable form of self-care for individuals coping with the aftermath of traumatic events. Journaling provides a safe and confidential outlet to express and explore a range of emotions and other challenging feelings. The power of journaling lies in its ability to help you gain perspective and process aspects of the event and post-event in a more objective manner. 

Journaling can be a cathartic process, offering a sense of release and providing an opportunity for self-reflection. When you transfer your experiences, thoughts, and emotions onto paper, you create distance between yourself and the sometimes overwhelming feelings, making space for reflection and processing. You can view your feelings from a different perspective, helping to reduce the intensity of negative thoughts and emotions while fostering greater understanding.

Incorporating journaling into your self-care routine opens up a channel for self-expression, self-discovery, and personal growth. It is a private space where you can freely explore your thoughts and emotions without judgment. It can be a valuable tool in your healing journey, helping you navigate the challenges and complexities of post-traumatic experiences.

Many people like you have found writing or journaling helpful in their healing.. You can write by hand or use a digital platform. You can even just type a note on your cell phone and copy it to your journal later. Choose the method that feels comfortable and accessible. As you fill the pages, you can look back over time and see how far you have come in your healing.

Below is an example of what a journal entry might look like to provide some guidance. Remember, your experience belongs to you and only you, just as your thoughts and feelings are yours alone. As you journal, try to be honest with yourself and give yourself grace, too. 

Date/Time 0/0/0, Thursday afternoon


(What happened?)

I was walking the dog in the neighborhood and ran into someone I barely knew. He told me that I did all that I could do for her.

My Thoughts 

(What did I say to myself?)

Who are you? How would you even know? You weren’t there and have no clue. I can’t remember what I did, let alone if I did everything and did it right! What if I didn’t? Count to 10. Get a grip.
My Feelings (0-10) Angry 7/10, Annoyed 5/10, Disconnected 8/10, Self-doubt 8/10
My Body (What am I feeling physically?) Muscle tension, gripping more firmly than normal, no eye contact, teeth grinding, feel my heart beating fast, I want to run.
My Behaviors
(What did I do to cope?)
I just said, “Thank you.” Then I walked away from the conversation before getting asked any questions. I felt tears welling up in my eyes.

Outcome or Reality

(What was the desired goal or reality of the situation?)

He just wanted to acknowledge that I tried to help. He didn’t know what to say and was just trying to be supportive. He didn’t mean anything bad by it. I hope I didn’t make him feel bad.
Personal Reflections I try to practice grace for others and myself, but it’s hard. I feel so isolated, in a bubble. Nobody can understand how I feel. I don’t even understand! But this time, it wasn’t as hard as when it first happened. This time, when I saw her face in my mind, she looked peaceful, angelic, as if to comfort me. So weird. But it made me feel better.


Support/social groups

Establishing a support system and participating in social groups are essential aspects of self-care during the recovery process after experiencing a traumatic event. If the idea of sharing your experiences with strangers feels daunting, create your own group with friends or others who were involved in the incident. Surrounding yourself with individuals who are willing to listen, understand, and provide support can help combat feelings of isolation.

Formal support groups offer a structured environment where you can share your own experiences, gain insights from others, and connect with individuals who have gone through similar situations. These groups provide a unique space for understanding and empathy since participants share a common lived experience. Social support and participating in support groups can help alleviate the symptoms often experienced following a traumatic event. 

While it may be tempting to withdraw from social and leisure activities you enjoyed before the incidents, it’s important to make an effort to stay connected. Participating in social and leisurely pursuits with others can provide a sense of normalcy and be a strong reminder that there is more to life than the trauma you have experienced.

Remember, seeking support and being part of a social community does not imply weakness or dependence. It is a sign of strength and self-care, as it allows you to lean on others during challenging times and promotes a sense of belonging and understanding. Embrace the opportunity to connect with others and engage in activities that bring you joy, as these connections and experiences are invaluable on your path to well-being.

Thank you to our contributors

Paul Snobelen & Jennifer Chap

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