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Resources for When You’ve Become Desensitized as an EMT

As an EMT, we’re the first to be called in an emergency, which means we are the first to witness scenes of trauma. Even the most seasoned EMTs can have an adverse reaction to the injuries and physical ailments that they witness on the job. 


But the longer that EMTs serve, the more they run the risk of becoming desensitized. While being able to efficiently do your job no matter the surroundings is an important part of performing your job and developing self-confidence skills in the workplace, complete desensitization can be detrimental to your mental health and how you process trauma.

There are strategies for effective desensitization and compartmentalization that can allow you to do your job and emotionally process what you experience as an EMT in a healthy way. We’ll explore several options here.

It’s Normal to Become Unnerved

How EMTs and other first responders deal with the life-threatening situations they experience on the job plays a large part in their overall mental health. 

It’s important to realize that feeling squeamish or encountering certain types of injuries that cause emotional and even physical reactions is normal. Many professionals, even those with years of medical field experience still find themselves on calls that turn their stomachs.1

Accepting that the emotions we feel are valid, normal, and real is the first step toward being able to cope with traumatic experiences in a healthy way. It is also essential for us to speak up early on. Let our leaders know, let our families know, let our teams know so that we can create a plan and have access to the resources we need to ensure when we come into work that we are prepared to do our jobs to the fullest. For tips from industry experts about how to build resilience and effective communication during stressful times, access our free webinar here.

Approaches for Healthy Desensitization

In order to be able to perform your best and put your patients first, you will have to develop a certain level of desensitization while you are in the field. There are many approaches to achieving an appropriately desensitized state to injuries and scenes of accidents. 

One approach is basic exposure. Some professionals choose to look at photos of injuries online to prepare themselves for emergencies and remove some of the shock that comes with seeing them for the first time. Others have found that time and experience gradually give you the exposure you need.

In fact, 80% of first responders report experiencing traumatic experiences on the job, and 10% worldwide suffer from PTSD symptoms.3 Learning the signs and symptoms of PTSD, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns is essential to monitoring your own well-being as well as the well-being of those on your team. Many find that knowing what to look out for, learning how to effectively communicate, and understanding the resources available to you as a first responder help them tackle their mental health concerns before they reach a state of complete desensitization.

Another approach chosen by some professionals is desensitization therapy. This behavioral therapy works to remove your body’s natural response to fear and replace it with a relaxed physical response instead. This approach has proven successful for learned behaviors and traumas.4 

Other professionals pursue eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR. This form of psychotherapy works to help your mind heal from psychological trauma, like witnessing a severe injury. The approach has been especially successful with severe cases of PTSD. According to the EMDR Institute, 77% of trauma victims no longer were diagnosed with PTSD after six EMDR sessions.5

Whatever resources you utilize, it is crucial that you balance your work with your life outside of your job. 

Balance Through Communication

While you may feel it best to leave work at work, a certain degree of communication and sharing is important to process your feelings. Rely on your support network and those closest to you. You don’t need to explain tough calls in detail, but share that you had a rough shift. Keeping your feelings inside will only strain your mental health.

Instead, focus on positive ways to compartmentalize and process your feelings. Keep a journal. Take time to paint or draw. If you’re religious, participate actively and find a way to remember the patients you lose. Find time to exercise to release stress. 

As you make your mental health a priority, you’ll find the right balance between desensitization and your natural emotions. Remember that what you feel allows you to empathize with those you serve, and that is one of the best traits you can carry with you as an EMT. 

For tips from industry experts about how to build resilience and effective communication after experiencing trauma, access our free webinar.


  1. EMTLife user responses: Desensitizing? EMT Life. Aug 1, 2013. https://emtlife.com/threads/desensitizing.35320/.
  2. Becoming desensitized – what’s your story? EMT Life. Oct 29, 2019. https://emtlife.com/threads/becoming-desensitized-whats-your-story.48095/#post-682020.
  3. Klimley K E, Van Hasselt V B, Stripling A M. Posttraumatic stress disorder in police, firefighters, and emergency dispatchers. Aggression and Violent Behavior. Nov 2018. 43: 33–44. doi:10.1016/j.avb.2018.08.005. ISSN 1359-1789.
  4.  McLeod S. Systematic Desensitization. Simply Psychology. 2015. https://www.simplypsychology.org/Systematic-Desensitisation.html.
  5. What is EMDR? EMDR Institute, Inc. 2020. https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/.
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