As first responders, we understand the job’s high stress as well as the need to reduce stress. However, most of us really don’t know what happens in the body during a stressful incident. Joking posters and decals are seen around the office and describe stress as “that irresistible urge to choke the daylights out of someone who richly deserves it.” I have paraphrased that last sentence to get it G-rated. Even stress jokes sound, well, stressed out.
Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines stress as follows, “a state of mental tension and worry caused by problems in your life, work, etc. or something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety.”
Stress is often experienced when we perceive a potential threat. First responders in busy jurisdictions may encounter potentially threatening situations numerous times in just one day.
When we perceive a threat, whether the physical threat of an out-of-control wildfire or chasing a criminal with a gun, our body tries to help us by pouring out various hormones to assist us in physically coping with the threat situation. In these cases, “being stressed” may be a lifesaver. Such hormones enable people to do amazing things while under stress, such as stories that we all have heard about people being able to lift cars off of a loved one in an accident.
The stress reaction is built into our bodies and served a useful purpose in our ancient past. The release of various hormones which increased respiration and blood flow enabled long-ago ancestors to be able to run away from the wooly mammoth or the saber-toothed tiger. Prehistoric men and women needed these “hormone dumps” to have the strength and the agility to escape dangerous situations which occurred from time to time. However, our bodies are not designed to sustain the fight-or-flight response many times each day, as first responders do.
Add into the mix the different type of stress that we experience in modern times. We aren’t physically in danger from an annoying supervisor or a difficult time in our marriage or in dealing with a teenager, a blended family, or a rotating schedule, yet the same hormone release occurs.
While that co-worker who jabbers on and on or a child who is running a smart mouth doesn’t represent an actual threat, those same stress hormones are released into our system. Then we find ourselves clenching our jaws or fists, our heart rate increases, and our face can go red because of increased blood flow. We aren’t running away from anything life threatening, but the physical result can be the same.
Many of us work second jobs at the beginnings of our careers to help make ends meet. We all know this can be necessary for supporting a young family, but it adds to the cumulative effects of stress and detracts from caring for ourselves.
In 2012, Time Magazine reported about a study which examined the effects of long-term stress which was not addressed or reduced. The study determined that long-term untreated stress actually caused brain changes which reduce the ability to respond in difficult situations. This is completely the opposite effect that nature intended.
Yale University’s Dr. Rajita Sinha, a psychiatry and neurobiology professor, determined that stress can shrink the areas of the brain which regulate emotions and metabolism. Dr. Sinha’s study demonstrated that it was not an individual severe trauma which initiated these changes, but rather the effects of a great deal of stress over time.
Stress and worry are two partners in crime. Did you know that the English term “worry” comes from an Old German term meaning “to strangle.” Stress and worry can strangle us, in a sense, and certainly strangles wellbeing and creativity.
What do we do to reduce the stress which is inherent to the type of work we do and the lifestyle of first responders? Perhaps we can take a cue from the flight attendant’s safety talk which we all ignore when we are getting ready to take off. After dealing with the rush of getting to the airport, getting through security, and boarding the plane, we’re too stressed to listen!
When flight attendants provide that safety brief, they advise passengers to, “put on your own oxygen mask first before trying to assist another passenger.” Obviously, if cabin pressure changes while in flight, you must take the time to make sure your own oxygen is flowing and that you are able to breathe before helping someone else.
First responders would do well to apply this notion to taking care of ourselves. We have to take care of others in our jobs and in our personal life. We cannot do so without adverse effects to our health and wellbeing if we don’t take care of our own needs first. If we do not deal with stress properly, it will continue to take a toll on our brain. Remember, the Yale University study indicated that parts of the brain actually shrink or atrophy while under prolonged stress.
Clearly good nutrition, adequate sleep, and regular exercise are part of how first responders “put on their own masks first.” We know that good nutrition, sleep, and exercise help us cope with stress, but how many follow through?
Professor Mark Bond of American Military University states that chronic lack of sleep can be particularly debilitating to law enforcement officers, “What many officers might not be aware of is the long-term effects of chronic fatigue and the relationship between stress and fatigue. Not getting enough rest and not eating properly in order to fuel the body can increase the effects of fatigue. Being fatigued on-duty causes many issues such as poor decision making and other cognitive task difficulties.”
Does your day start with adequate time for a quick walk and a nourishing breakfast after a night of good sleep? Or does it really involve you sleeping for 4 hours and grabbing a greasy breakfast sandwich at the 7-11 after you drop the kids off at day care, eaten while you pump gas, followed by a stressed out ride to work in which you arrive 5 minutes late?
Experts advise that acquiring one new habit at a time on a continuum is more effective in working our way back to a more healthy lifestyle vs. trying to do everything all at once. Thinking about making a great number of changes at one time can be overwhelming. Little changes accumulating over time can have a terrific long-term impact.
We can’t all decide to run a 5-K next weekend. But we can decide to take a quick bike ride or a walk around the block. Maybe fast food is the only option, but how about a salad instead of fries and a burger? Can we commit to readying for work a half hour or even 15 minutes earlier to avoid the time crunch and resulting stress? Coffee can pump us up when we are tired, but can we replace just two of those cups with water?
What changes do you need to make in your life to ensure more time and space to take care of yourself so that you can continue to protect and serve others?
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