Ironwoman Diana Woolf Races for PTSD Awareness

Diana Woolf smiles as she leans against a hand rail.
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By Columbia Southern University and Diana Woolf

In April 2018, Diana Woolf, a 47-year-old fire service veteran from Highland Hills, Ohio and graduate of Columbia Southern University, competed in an Ironman triathlon dressed in full turnout gear, something no woman has ever done before her. Her reason? To raise awareness and funding to help firefighters cope with post-traumatic stress disorder.

Studies have found that anywhere between approximately 7 percent and 37 percent of the nation’s more than one million firefighters meet the criteria for a current diagnosis of PTSD.

Defined as a mental health condition brought on after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic or disturbing event, PTSD’s high prevalence seems to make sense in firefighting. As first-responders, firefighters are exposed to human suffering, tragedy and more.

Woolf  knows this all too well. She has seen her fair share of distressing experiences; however, she didn’t notice what the trauma of the events was slowly doing to her.

“Early signs for me were noticed more by friends,” Woolf explained. “They pointed out my uncontrolled outbursts of anger, depression, loss of interest, feelings of despair and social relationship problems.”

She is not alone in dealing with these issues. Earlier this year, the International Association of Fire Fighters found that a survey of 7,000 firefighters across North America indicated 19 percent have had suicidal thoughts, 27 percent have struggled with substance abuse, 59 percent have experienced family and relationship problems and 65 percent are bothered by memories of tough calls.

As Woolf describes, these are just a few of the symptoms that firefighters should regard about their behavior.

Symptom: Difficulty regulating attitude

“This sign is probably one of the toughest to work through and very difficult for loved ones,” she said. “I was extremely negative. Depression only increased the negativity. Someone with PTSD is almost always in a bad mood. For families, it is like having to walk on egg shells.” 

Symptom: Substance/drug abuse

Substance or alcohol abuse only hides the symptoms temporarily. The continual need to find relief from symptoms are only covered up when the alcohol or drugs are active in the system and provide no pursuit for actively engaging in healing or learning to control triggers of PTSD.

Symptom: Hyperarousal or constant readiness for danger

“This is more of a feeling of something is going to happen versus being ready for it,” she said. “The constant feeling of impending doom wears a person down.” 

Symptom: Depression/emotionally giving up

“This is a major part of PTSD.  The depression stems from being worn down from your feelings and the uncontrollable thoughts,” she said. “This is when suicidal thoughts can occur. It takes so much work to overcome this; just as you are feeling better you get a trigger and it sets you back. It’s like taking one step forward, trigger, then three steps back.”

Symptom: Re-experiencing traumatic events

“This is extremely different for every individual. Repetitive exposure to trauma is very common for firefighters where we are exposed over and over to death and trauma,” she said. “In fact, it is very common for firefighters to become numb to death. For example, I do not cry at funerals even if it is someone I know closely. I have lost my empathy for death and the feeling of loss. I am convinced I will never get empathy for human death back.”

Symptom: Loss of interest

“Loss of interest coincides with the depression,” she said. “For me, I didn’t want to do anything but lay in bed. I didn’t want to do any social activities or go to events that involved anyone outside my immediate family.  Any activity that required me to have conversation with people was eliminated. I felt comfortable staying at home all the time.”

Symptom: Physical pains and anxiety

“Just like stress-related symptoms, physical aches, back pain, joint pain, anxiety, heart palpitations, migraines and blurred vision are very difficult to manage,” she said. “This often leads to the substance abuse or addiction to narcotic pain medicines. The back pain for me was debilitating at times. I always had pain somewhere in my body.”

Symptom: Loss of concentration or ability to focus

“This is a lingering symptom for me. A very difficult one to manage. I could sit at my work desk, look like I am going through the motions at work and not get anything done,” said Woolf. “At times, I would hide at work because I just could not concentrate to get anything done, or would make such ridiculous mistakes coworkers would wonder what was wrong with me. It was all I could do to produce minimal amounts of work. In addition, there are periods of time I do not remember. My brain was so full I do not remember everything that happened during the time I was at my worst.”

Lastly, facing all these symptoms without social, emotional and physical support can only worsen matters, said Woolf.

“I never really felt I didn’t have support, I didn’t feel I needed it because I didn’t realize what was happening.  Until you recognize your symptoms, or someone close to you recognizes it and you accept it, there is no recognition of the need for support,” said Woolf. “However, if you recognize it, and do not have access to support or your loved ones don’t understand PTSD, the lack of support will be a huge problem. I could not have healed this much without my husband who understood why I had PTSD. He is a firefighter.”

So how do those affected by PTSD build some coping mechanisms to deal with these symptoms?

After Woolf was officially diagnosed with PTSD, she turned to cognitive behavioral therapy. She started trail running around 2009 and soon realized the more she trained, the better she felt. Soon, she began training and competing in triathlons. Since her first race, she has completed more than 50 triathlons, including nine half-distance and four full-distance Ironman triathlons consisting of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon.

While exercise has helped her, Woolf mentions that it is only one method for dealing with PTSD and it
may not help everyone.

“There is no single coping mechanism for individual symptoms. The combination of symptoms, the severity and ability to understand your PTSD is different for every individual,” Woolf explained. “I believe the number one way someone can start to survive their PTSD is to recognize it and open up to someone about it. Holding it inside only makes the PTSD worse and can become very harmful.”

Diana Woolf earned her Bachelor of Science in organizational leadership with Columbia Southern University in 2014. Her organization, Rescue4PTSD, raises awareness and funds to support those who are living with PTSD.

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