Research repeatedly has demonstrated that organisms exhibit adaptive physiological, emotional, and behavioral responses when exposed to noxious or threatening environmental stimuli. However, when the noxious stimuli are excessive or prolonged, efforts to cope may become overwhelmed, and the adaptive responses can turn into maladaptive reactions (e.g., illness, depression, and impaired performance). According to this model of stress, people who work in occupations that continually place them in danger or repeatedly force them to encounter psychologically demanding or distressing situations would appear to be at greater risk for developing adverse stress reactions.
Both anecdotal evidence and empirical research suggest that prehospital emergency medical services (EMS) may be a particularly high-stress field, placing emergency medical technicians (EMTs) at risk for developing such maladaptive stress reactions. This article reviews and synthesizes the empirical literature investigating the sources of stress among EMTs, and concludes with critical comments and guidelines for future research. The authors intend this review to be a resource for investigators conducting research in this area, as well as a convenient summary for anyone interested in learning more about the stressors EMTs experience, particularly mental health professionals and EMS administrators coordinating stress-management programs for EMTs.