Hey First Responders!
Who wants to cure stress, live a magical life, and get the body you have always wanted? Raise your hand.
Now that I have your attention – what are your thoughts about unicorns and magic? You’re welcome for the laugh. For real, what if I was to tell you that you are capable of effectively managing your stress, living the life of your dreams, and having the body you have always wanted? More plainly stated, you can become an elite first responder; physically and psychologically healthy for your entire career, effectively manage stress, take care of yourself, and have the mindset to prevail in all areas of your life.
Sound incredible? Maybe too good to be true? It is absolutely achievable. Self-regulation, effective stress management, and developing resiliency are essential to achieve said possibilities. Gaining awareness and a sense of understanding of how our body works is critical to initiating the process as well as effectively training to enhance the warrior you are.
A six-letter word – Stress – can make or break us. Stress is inherent in the profession. In the past, first responder culture did not recognize stress as a problem and many departments still do not. Plenty of research is out there now showing unmanaged stress can lead to significant issues with long-term adverse effects. One area of growth has been the realization that effective wellness (i.e. self-care) is critical for a first responder to have optimal performance.
Harnessing the mindset to be resilient and manage stress has everything to do with your perception of stress. Stress is integral to our lives, however, our reaction to it may affect our lives negatively. To cultivate a warrior mindset is to understand that stress can be a positive. It is important to reframe how you see stress; it is not a sign to run away or let it take you over, it’s a sign to welcome it and step forward into action (McGonical, 2015).
An important start to this process is embracing your shift as a first responder and understanding how the random ups and downs activate your body to have certain internal reactions and responses. A typical shift has periods of critical situations interrupted by stretches of ordinariness and monotony. From the moment you put on your uniform or scrubs, your body is engaging in a variety of responses. It knows that you must be at a certain level of alertness to complete the job and stay safe. You start the shift uncertain what the day will hold and need to be ready to respond to any situation at any time. Emergency call comes in or tones go off or medical report from ambulance comes across the radio – auto versus pedestrian – a 5-year-old was hit while walking in the crosswalk. Your mind and your body immediately react. Your system tells you to prepare to perform the skills needed to help the situation. You consider what the scene looks like and what will need to be done. For field personnel, enroute you are canceled and sent to an elderly woman who needs help getting back into her bed after falling. She is lonely as her family has not come to visit in a while. In between calls, you attempt to get some food in your system before the next emergency comes in and as you scarf half of your sandwich down, emergency call, and you are suddenly dispatched to a domestic dispute where a man has shot his wife and is holding his children hostage.
The roller coaster of stress reactions for a first responder whether in the field, dispatch, and/or hospital can cause havoc on your body if not regulated. To move through such body reactions means to ride the stress activation in order to return your body back to a normal state of functioning. Typically, this process takes 24 to 48 hours. Wait, what?! How much time is between calls? Seconds to minutes. How much time is between shifts? A matter of hours. When on Earth are you going to be able to have 24 to 48 hours to rest your system? The goal is to train to regulate and recover from the daily demands of the profession and to manage daily stressors to prevent a build up of them. In essence, understand what your body needs, listen to it, and apply the tools necessary to manage.
In response to stressors, our body executes innate, automatic actions. All of these coordinated responses are the body’s way to prepare to meet the threat and defend itself, through survival behaviors and protection mechanisms. Problems arise when the body is unable to complete the appropriate actions and discharge the energy generated by those survival preparations. This energy becomes fixed in your body leading to acute and then chronic arousal and dysfunction of your central nervous system (Levine, 1997). In essence, your body becomes stuck in an aroused state and it is difficult to function under those circumstances.
In order to self-regulate, you need to release the energy that builds up in your system. You need to let the hyperarousal occur and then proceed to reset. You must teach your body how to be content with stress.
A solution is yoga. Yoga serves as an essential skillset for self-regulation after nervous system activation. We inherently have the skills to rebalance our bodies but there are so many factors that get in the way of that when you are a first responder.
To clarify, regulation is very different than relaxation, which many people link to yoga. Relaxation is not realistic in the daily life of a first responder. It’s not like you can say to the woman whom just saw her child get hit by a car, “Hey hold on, I need to take a quick trip to the beach for some relaxation to regulate my body.” There are essential tools that yoga can teach you to regulate your body in the most intense of situations. Without appropriate and consistent regulation of the nervous system, adverse mental, physical, emotional effects and their consequences take place. The effects include compassion fatigue, burnout, and post-traumatic stress, which are all normal reactions to abnormal circumstances and more importantly the system’s attempt at regulation.
So yes, you did read that correctly – Yoga. While you may have a mental image of yoga mats and contoured body poses, yoga is not about sitting, meditating, chanting, and attempting to place your inflexible body in contoured positions. Yoga is a full body workout that not only does a body good, it has many health benefits and enhances your emotional wellness and mental resiliency. For many of us, we internalize how we feel and that manifests in our bodies. This internalization affects our mind and everyday life. Yoga allows us to release mental and physical tension and is an excellent form of exercise.
Yoga specifically designed for first responders reduces stress; development of negative coping skills, various injuries, burn-out, leaving the job early due to disability or premature retirement. Yoga reduces hypervigilance, promotes growth and prevents exhaustion. Yoga for First Responders is a missing skillset that is a proactive form of exercise for strengthening mental and physical resiliency and can be used to help enhance performance.
The original intention of yoga was to gain mastery over your mind and obtain optimal functioning of your entire body. The origin of yoga in the East was to train warriors for battle. Yoga may have some mystical meanings, but when you shed the mysticism, all that remains is a simple process that allows you to achieve conscious control over your unconscious nervous system, and then puts it to work for you (Grossman, 2004).
Yoga helps you process stress in a manner that leads to growth and to build mental and physical resilience toward stress. As a first responder, ideally, we function within an optimal zone where we are cool, calm, collected, and connected despite the chaos around us. There are many aspects of the job that act as a mitigating factors to prevent such optimization.
On a daily basis, you witness the damage people do to one another, you see intense suffering, while you seek to protect and save innocence and life. You place yourself in harm’s way to protect the community. As a first responder, you are exposed to the worst of humanity, the most violent and tragic situations imaginable. Your employment requires you to engage in such situations with little to no education, training or preparation to effectively manage the ramifications of a career as a first responder. Long-term survivability needs proactive preparedness. It’s about time to focus on prevention – developing a health and wellness program that includes Yoga for First Responders protocol is the essential component.
Grossman, L. (2004). On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflict in War and in Peace.
Levine, P. (1997). Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma.
McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it.