Updated: August 27th, 2021
As members of the National Guard, we have very similar lifestyles as other service-oriented jobs, including first responders. Oftentimes we wear many hats throughout our week. We may be “weekend warriors,” but we also have civilian jobs during the week. We may be parents who also volunteer in our community. Sometimes the time requirements for each of these roles compete with one another and may add a lot of pressure to “do it all.” With no “down time,” these roles can become very stressful. How do professionals in these fields typically handle stress? Are some solutions better than others?
Common ways personnel in service-oriented jobs try to combat stress include:
engaging in physical activity, taking a vacation, attending counseling, spending time with others, practicing yoga, drinking, using drugs, gambling, and engaging in risky behavior. The first half of the list has more positive results than the second half. But do they last? Jill Miller states in her book The Roll Model that “unprocessed emotion festers and seethes inside your mind and heart and can alter your behavior…though you may not have specific hip, neck, or back pain, the inner congestion caused by hiding your feelings from yourself and others is on display in the general tone of your body…your emotionally beaten body is harboring these generalized aches partly because it is experiencing stress overload and you cannot unwind and let go.” (p. 375)
If unprocessed emotion (including stress) can alter our behavior and cause inner congestion, how do we process stress?
To process stress, we must first understand what it is. According to Dr. Kelly McGonigal, “Stress is what arises when something you care about is at stake…you don’t stress out about things you don’t care about, and you can’t create a meaningful life without experiencing some stress.” (p. XXI) This means that we have to choose whether to care about things and invite stress into our lives or live a life not caring about anything and therefore, have a futile life. Stress is guaranteed within a meaningful life, so why do we work so hard to remove it? The easy answer—that is what we have been taught.
Many of us have heard from well-meaning others, if something is stressful to quit, leave, just relax, etc. Sometimes those suggestions are not possible. But is stress really all bad? “The latest science reveals that stress can make you smarter, stronger, and more successful. It helps you learn and grow. It can even inspire courage and compassion.” (McGonigal, p. XVII) How can stress be helpful when it feels so overwhelming? The answer lies in our perception of stress.
If we perceive an experience as overwhelmingly stressful, our bodies respond with our sympathetic nervous system moving into fight or flight mode. We may experience impulsivity, anger, racing thoughts, hypervigilance, tension, poor judgement, and feel unsafe. If we quit caring about what is stressing us, our bodies respond with our parasympathetic nervous system moving into freeze mode. We may experience numbness, hopelessness, withdrawing, low or no energy, inability to think clearly, or feeling disconnected. On the other hand, if we change our mindset to perceive stress as a challenge, our bodies’ responses will also change. We will have “greater confidence in [our] ability to cope with those challenges, and [we] are better able to find meaning in difficult circumstances.” (McGonigal, p. 16) Our ventral vagal nerve will be cool, calm and collected. We may be in the present moment, be able to regulate our emotional state, be coherent, be able to feel empathy, feel energized, think and feel at the same time, and feel safe.
How do we change our mindset?
Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains the process like this: “The first step is to acknowledge stress when you experience it. Simply allow yourself to notice the stress, including how it affects your body. The second step is to welcome the stress by recognizing that it’s a response to something you care about. Can you connect to the positive motivation behind the stress? What is at stake here, and why does it matter to you? The third step is to make use of the energy that stress gives you, instead of wasting that energy trying to manage your stress. What can you do right now that reflects your goals and values?” (p. 29) Following this process makes us more resilient by teaching us to build resources for stressful situations instead of avoiding or denying them. Even the slightest mindset shift can change our perception of stress and the trajectory of how our bodies respond to stress, giving us courage to grow from stress.
How do we practice processing stress safely (not downrange or in the midst of an emergency)?
This is where Yogashield® Yoga For First Responders® training assists. YFFR has taken all of this scientific information about stress and how it can be used to build resilience and enhance performance and then put it to practical use on a yoga mat. In the classroom, we are given the opportunity to create understanding in our brains of how to use stress. We can shift our mindsets about stress and then change our stress responses on the yoga mat. During mat sessions, we deliberately put stress on our bodies and then shift our mindsets by asking, “Is this a challenge or a threat?” Whatever actions we use during practice while under stress is how our bodies and brains will spontaneously respond to future stress (including downrange or during an emergency). Dr. Kelly McGonigal suggests, “When you feel your body responding to stress, ask yourself which part of the stress response you need most. Do you need to fight, escape, engage, connect, find meaning, or grow?” (p. 61)
Another part of Yogashield® YFFR is called “Removing the Armor” and combines Yin Yoga with self-myofascial release (SMR). This process will help remove the “inner congestion” within your body’s fascia. Jill Miller explains, “Your fascias form a seam structure that is threaded throughout your body, so working on one area impacts the whole. It’s all interconnected.” (p. 106) Using a therapy ball to find and release the “inner congestion” tells the nervous system to shut off the signal for the muscle to stay in its “fight or flight” response allowing the body’s tone to relax.
Practicing yoga through Yogashield® YFFR will encourage us to see our own body as a resource to use while under stress. As National Guard members, we can utilize breathing techniques called tactical breathwork, body positioning during physical drills, cognitive declarations to shift our mindset, removing the armor to release fascia, and neurological resets to regulate ourselves. The best part - our minds and bodies are with us wherever we go!
Written by YogaShield® Instructor Kelley Ullerich Class 0016 S6
McGonigal, PhD., Kelly. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good For You and How to Get Good At it. An Imprint of Penguin Random House (2015).
Miller, Jill. The Roll Model: A Step-by-Step Guide to Erase Pain, Improve Mobility, and Live Better in Your Body. Victory Belt Publishing (2014).