Stressed much? We all are—in one (many) form(s) or another—at home and at work, but we know that the fire community sees and deals with so much. Over time that stress can truly take a toll on the mind and body.

The threat: Increased stress can impact our health in extreme ways. Simply put, when stress adds up we see problems. Per the American Psychological Association, “it’s not so much what chronic stress does to the nervous system, but what continuous activation of the nervous system does to other bodily systems that become problematic.”

One could argue that stress isn’t hurting us, that it’s killing us. But something to point out here is that the actual stress isn’t killing us; it’s how we react to it (and for how long) that matters. Potential symptoms of stress can present themselves in so many ways, and are focused on manipulating our hormones (including a stress hormone called cortisol). In turn, this can result in a variety of signs and symptoms of stress—weight gain or loss to poor posture/muscle tightness to frequent sickness to fatigue or exhaustion to insulin resistance and more. Issues lie in our inability to let go of stress, and instead compound it with more, and more, and more. This constant “wear and tear,” or exposure to repeated stress, is called allostatic load, and the majority of us are suffering from it.

Instead of allowing it to become a problem, how do we figure out healthy ways to cope with the stress that comes our way as part of life (and actually deal with it) This is a topic I’ve been exploring within The Cultural Shift Method in my Stress Management Workshop for firefighters. I’m giving you a sneak peak (brushing the surface) of some of the topics that we’ve been exploring and working on….

The solution: Managing stress looks different for each person and, like with anything worthwhile, it’s going to be a trial and error type of situation. If you’re struggling with managing your stress load, let’s explore some healthy coping mechanisms to getting it under control/reduced. I’m breaking down areas of focus for improving stress response, mindset, and mental health while on the job as a firefighter below:

6 Areas of Stress Management for Firefighters

DIET

Having a balanced (variety) and adequate (enough nutrients and calories) diet puts less stress on the body as a whole, which prepares you to better deal with the stress that comes along the way. This is going to look different on everyone, but a general focus is on:

  • Aiming to eat real, whole foods that are nutrient dense
    o A variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables (brighter or darker the color = more nutrient dense)
    o Healthy fats, such as nuts, seeds, extra virgin olive and avocado oils
    o Animal and plant protein, minimally processed
    o Complex carbohydrates, such as beans, lentils, starchy vegetables, and whole grain options
  • Focusing on limiting:
    o Processed foods (from convenience foods to refined flours to highly processed oils)
    o Alcohol, caffeine, and refined sugars

Nutrients of interest in regard to stress response focus on recovery, calming, hydrating, and anti-inflammatory options. If diet is not balanced and adequate, supplement with a multivitamin; B complex; antioxidants (vitamins A, C, and E) or high polyphenol foods, as they protect against oxidative stress; zinc; magnesium (relaxation mineral); potassium; and omega 3 fatty acids.

For a more in-depth article focused on diet’s importance on stress management for firefighters, check out this article I contributed to Firehouse.com.

SLEEP

There are various studied associations between sleep and its impact on our health. Some include cortisol and stress, recovery, weight management, and our general health. Lack of sleep/irregular sleep patterns increase our stress hormones and is one of the biggest issues to address for stress management. Try to aim for 7-9 hours per night of restful sleep—prioritize this someway, somehow. The first step, if you haven’t tried this yet, is setting up a sleep routine that continuously tells your body it’s time to go to sleep…

MINDSET AND MINDFULNESS

Improving your mindset is one of the key ways to let things go. It’s a form of stress management in itself—you set yourself up for success so that stressors don’t frazzle you as much and/or learn how to brush them off = coping skill. Studies have found that people who journal, meditate, and practice gratitude are happier in life than those that don’t. Happier = less stress = healthier to a large extent in my book.

Some of the ways you can focus on improving mindset involve practicing 1. gratitude (a sense of appreciation for what you have — big, small and somewhere in between), writing and saying 2. affirmations (positive statements that conquer self doubt, because the mind controls so much, and if we are hating or thinking we can’t do something, the rest follows), 3. silver linings for when things hit the fan, what can you learn from it and how can you find an ounce of positivity. 4. meditation: training in awareness and mindfulness (ability to be present) to create a mental and emotional state of calmness. Meditation is a skill that takes practice and improves over time; it doesn’t have to be perfect. Some days it will be easier than others, but the focus on continuous meditation is where we see the benefits.

ACTIVE RELAXATION

Implement self care rituals that involve active relaxation, including leisurely walks, reading a book, putting together a puzzle, etc. Take the time to enjoy your meal and company (ditch the rushed vibes). Slow down. Reminder that self care looks different on everyone…

MOVEMENT

Exercise has so many benefits for mental and physical health. The key with exercise is understanding that although helpful, it can be harmful (ex: over exercising, exercising while stressed or tired). Focusing on cross training and creating a well-rounded program is optimal for benefits — incorporating a variety of exercises, from cardio to strength training to stretching, like yoga, can be beneficial for overall firefighter health and wellness and injury prevention.

POWER OF THE BREATH

I first learned about how powerful the breath could be during a workshop training (Breath- Body- Mind) I attended in an effort to learn more about stress management techniques for firefighters. I was fascinated (yet skeptical, until I immersed myself in it) by the evidence-based science approaches that I would learn to incorporate into my nutrition education program for firefighters — from improving cardiorespiratory health to stress and anxiety management.
Regardless of how big or small a stressor is, using your breath in a purposeful way (coherent breathing) by changing the length of time spent on the inhale, hold, and exhale, can help you feel more connected to your body and in control. Coherent breathing forces the mind to calm down (vagus nerve activation) and creates a chain reaction to reduce stress and anxiety, all while improving our physical and mental well-being.

Let’s practice: I encourage you to pause and breathe. Right here, right now. Close your eyes, relax your shoulders back and down, release any tension from your face and jaw. Take an inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, releasing any sounds or feels; repeat 5 times. Your mindful breathing doesn’t have to be perfect, but with practice you can build on the skill; making it easier with time in any situation, especially those that are stressful.

Conclusion: We need to understand what our stressors are, how they affect us, and proactively implement actions to lessen the damage of stress, especially the stress that isn’t resolved in a timely manner. Before creating a course of action, it’s necessary to understand what our stressors are. Think of your current stressors, write them down, get comfortable with knowing that they’re there. Next, it’s time to do the work! I encourage you to get started by approaching the areas of focus mentioned in this article. And if you’re looking for more, please reach out to see if working with me on a Stress Management for Firefighters Workshop for your fire department is of interest.

Your turn: How do you manage stress? I’d love to hear your stress reduction tips in the comments.