From fear to courage

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We in the services go from fear to courage. If we didn’t the job would never get done.

Fifteen years in the fire service has taught me a lot. Not only has it been an education, but it has also given me a lot to think about. For instance, why people like me do what we do?

Over the years, I have thought a lot about what drives us to act. While I know that our motivations are many, my mind always returns to one primary thought. How can we run into the face of chaos, while others run for freedom? In my view, I think it is primarily centred around this: I believe that fear gives us the courage we need to go into battle and or into fully-involved structure fires.

There hasn’t been a large-scale call where I haven’t experienced some level of fear. Yet, despite being frightened, I never once backed away from the job. Why is that? Well, as I said, it’s for the reasons I have mentioned but without the ignition point, we might not step up. I see the chemical adrenaline as the catalyst that moves us from fear to courage.

I also tend to think that without it, we would suffer from “deer in the headlights” syndrome. Freezing rather than fighting is a sure way of dying. It’s a fact that we humans have known for centuries.

What the public sees is what they would label a “hero.” But in reality, I feel like it’s all the above – working in unison to get the job done. Most of us in the services are humble and do not see what we do as heroic. It’s the job.

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While we have become experts at facing our fears on the fire ground or in the back of the ambulance, treating a critically-ill patient, we are, however, not good at overcoming our personal fears. With every serious run, we can end up leaving a piece of ourselves behind in an ever-growing void.

Does early intervention help reduce the odds of PTSD?

The feelings that this void produces could be the beginning of a psychological injury. And like that of a physical open injury, it can be increasingly more life-threatening if ignored. Sadly, helpers are always the last to get the help they need and because of it, they are usually hanging precariously over the edge.

In other words, this mental injury becomes the psychological equivalent of “gangrenous” and thereby in need of some intense, life-saving treatment. It was at this juncture that I realized I was heading to a place of no return, and because I couldn’t go from fear to courage like I did for countless others, I ended up being diagnosed with PTSD.

Black and white MRI scan of the human brain - From fear to courage
Photo by cottonbro on – From fear to courage

My conclusions? We in the services need to understand that PTSD is a very real threat to our health. Equally important is to understand that once diagnosed with PTSD, your brain has undergone neurobiological changes. Its power to impact the brain is significant and debilitating. The lion’s share of the damage lies within the hippocampus and amygdala, as well as many other regions in your pre-frontal cortex.

The Prefrontal cortex is located behind your forehead – and is the region of the brain that makes you, you. Furthermore, it helps play a role in impulse control along with a variety of different functions. The other two regions are: the hippocampus, which looks after memory processes, storing and recalling – and the amygdala, which is in control of your fright, fight or freeze response. These areas of the brain are directly affected by PTSD, essentially making it a physiological injury of sorts.

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Ok, so it’s up for debate whether PTSD can be classified as a physical injury. There are, however, observable alterations to the regions of the brain mentioned above. Therefore, it seems reable to me that it can indeed be. SO, I think it’s time to treat it as such.

More on the neurobiology of PTSD.

Lastly, my hope here is to show those who fear a diagnosis that it is not a sign of weakness. But instead, I want to help them see that there are real, physical underlying complications to PTSD’s impact. It’s pure neurology. It’s okay. It’s not that you weren’t strong enough. You were injured by your horrific experiences. Your PTSD wasn’t asked for, and it sure as hell isn’t something you can shake off.

Now, it’s a matter of you going from fear to courage and to fight for your own survival. You have done your time. It’s now time to do for you. Be kind to yourself – you’ve earned it.

If you are struggling, please go here for help: Crisis Services Canada


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Jonathan Arenburg

Jonathan Reginald-Nixon Arenburg (Born January 14, 1976) is a Canadian mental health blogger, speaker, and published author. Retired from the fire service and long-term care fields, he has written and self-published an autobiographical account of his life-long battle with anxiety, depression and more recently, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Titled, The Road To Mental Wellness, he wrote it for what he calls “therapeutic release.” He published it in hopes it would help others going through similar mental health conditions. The sales of The Road To Mental Wellness have been steady selling over 300 copies since its release on October 10, 2021(World Mental Health Day). Arenburg has also been involved in a collaborative publication Called Lemonade Stand Volume III, a book featuring 20 authors who bravely tell their stories of PTSD. All authors where from the military and or emergency services. Published by Joshua Rivedal and Kathleen Myers for the i’Mpossible project, a mental health advocacy organization. Jonathan has also appeared on several mental health podcasts including The Depression Files, A New Dawn, and The Above Ground Podcast Arenburg has also consulted with the Government of Nova Scotia and the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions, the Honorable Brian Comer and Candidates for the New Democratic Party of Canada, on improving the mental health care system in Canada. Additionally, Jonathan was recognized in The Nova Scotia Legislature by the Honorable, Chris Palmer, Kings-North MLA, for his Book, The Road To Mental Wellness, his fight to make the mental health care system better. In addition, Chis acknowledged the support he gives to others.

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