First responders face an enormous amount of stress.
Responders are continually barraged with stressful situations and receive training to externally control and mitigate those situations. Rarely does the training they receive actually train the internal body for what they experience. Yet that internal experience, the stress and trauma, are acknowledged as a risk of the job - the same as risks such as getting into a fight or a building collapsing on a fire, which are expressly and diligently trained for. It's clear those internal situations create stress, even day to day operations add to the stress of the job.
This level of stress and trauma has become a hot topic in the first responder community.
Discussions of wellness, resiliency, and the negative effects of stress and trauma are increasing in popularity. However, these primarily discuss how to combat stress and the negative effects of stress. That perception is actually making the effects of stress worse.(1) Stress and the stress response are not inherently bad. It’s a powerful process within the human body for survival and adaptation.
There is a tool that can transform the perception of stress from a threat to a challenge; creating resiliency and enhancing job performance through accessing the nervous system and gaining mastery of the mind to reframe the stress response. This tool is Yoga.
More specifically, Yoga For First Responders®, which facilitates the mastering of the mind and body through culturally informed and job specific practices. First Responders have an abundance of stress, and consequently a powerful source at their fingertips to form a resilient, elite responder. Yoga For First Responders® created a yoga practice specifically for emergency personnel to foster that potential using four concepts; Tactical Breathwork, Physical Drills, Cognitive Declarations, and Neurological Resets.
The practice of tactical breathwork, being consciously aware of the breath and controlling it in a specific way, allows conscious control over the unconscious nervous system.(2) Breathwork is the gateway to this unconscious system, known as the autonomic nervous system. It’s comprised of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system, which generally work in opposition. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with the stress response and prepares the body and mind for the perceived danger. Being in this heightened state for prolonged periods of time, or repeatedly, can lead to excess of the chemicals produced by the stress response and a lowered window of tolerance. Hence sleeplessness, poor immunity, emotional instability, and other diseases.
After this stress response, the parasympathetic nervous system is activated and many experience what Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, refers to as parasympathetic “backlash”. In this state, the opposite of the stress response occurs, responders are tired, detached, and isolated.(3)
Tactical breathwork puts the first responder in control over these otherwise automatic responses, creating an increase in focus and awareness, thus increasing performance.
It also balances the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems and allows for opening and closing of the diaphragm. The diaphragm massages the Vagus Nerve, which activates the parasympathetic response. This is the response which helps responders return to homeostasis, the internal stabilized state of the body. Not only does this have an effect on the nervous system which affects performance, controlled breathing can assist in prolonging air supply for a firefighter during a fire and increased control during emergency situations for police.
During yoga practice, breathing activates the parasympathetic system while the body begins to enter a stress state through the physical drills. In the physical drills, the muscles in the body are working to build strength in the whole body, including small stabilizing muscles that are often missed in traditional muscle building. These stabilizing muscles increase mobility and strength in areas that are often weakened from day to day activities performed by first responders, including the back, knees and shoulders.
The heart rate is also increasing and the stress response, or sympathetic system, begins to activate. While the stress state created by physical drills is different than that of a real-life scenario experienced by the first responders, the heart rate and beginning phases are similar enough to facilitate a change in viewpoint from a threat (or perceived danger) to a challenge through Cognitive Declarations or mantras. These are culturally informed words or phrases that reflect a positive view of the stress state.
The mind begins to process the stress response as a challenge, increasing function and awareness.
Information processed during this state is absorbed deeper into the subconscious while the information and environment is controlled. This process of reframing the stress response is essential for resilience. People who do not perceive stress as bad or negative have a better ability to cope and process stress, and improved positive hormone production associated with the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems.(4) This is how a challenge response instead of a threat response is created. In a challenge response, while the hormones that are released during the threat response are the same, the ratios are different, which results in an increase in focus, performance, and recovery.(5) A person is only as resilient as their ability to recover, and in the challenge response that ability increases.
During the Neurological Reset, or recovery period, the brain is absorbing what was experienced and framing the future stress response.
Stress leaves an imprint on the brain and the body. The stress response is biologically designed to be learned from and is adaptable.(6) Throughout a Yoga For First Responders® practice, the perception of stress is being reframed to create resiliency. The pre-existing stress response has been shaped by repeated exposure from both day to day experiences and traumatic experiences, generally, to be negative. Studies have shown that this negative perception increases the negative effects. These preconceived perceptions have the potential to be stronger and deeper due to the frequency, nature of the experiences and how stress is processed. Every experience travels along a path in the brain, the more frequently a path is traveled, the deeper ingrained the experience becomes.(7) Experiencing frequent or constant stress in negative connotation creates a negative default setting. But these negative associations can be reversed.(8)
By reframing the response from threat to challenge and allowing time for that experience to be processed in a safe environment through a deliberate practice, the stress instinct is transformed. Instead of fearing it, which creates more harm than good, its power is being harnessed and controlled to create human operational efficiency.
By continually practicing yoga, the body is put into a stress state in a controlled environment, the stress response is reframed from fight or flight to a challenge response, and Neurological Resets allow that experience to be integrated. This full process and experience allow first responders to change the perception of stress which creates a healthier stress response and enhances job performance. First Responders and their agencies have an abundance of stress, which is generally seen as a negative and hindrance to performance.
Now they can access a tool to transform it, creating an elite first responder. A responder that is better prepared not only to face experiences that the majority of the world could never fathom, but excel in them.
Written by Jennelle Crnich, Certified YFFR Instructor 2
Jennelle has been a dispatcher with the Eureka, California Police and Fire Department for almost 14 years. After spending a shift with her aunt who was a dispatcher with the Eureka Police and Fire Department, Jennelle knew serving her community and fellow first responders as a dispatcher was her calling. During her 14 years as a dispatcher, she was a part of many critical incidents involving both police and fire which lead her to another passion, peer support and Yoga for First Responders®. She holds many training certifications for both police and fire, and has 300 hours of Yoga training, including 70 hours of Yoga for First Responders® Intensive Training. She has brought this tactical, science based approached to yoga back to our community and has taught several Yoga for First Responders® classes to both police and fire personnel. She is extremely passionate about the well-being and safety of the community and first responders. For Jennelle, taking care of the community and those that serve the community is an honor and blessing.
Gilmartin, K. M. (2002). Emotional survival for law enforcement: a guide for officers and their families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press.
Grossman, D., & Christensen, L. W. (2008). On combat: the psychology and physiology of deadly conflict in war and in peace. United States: KRG, LLC. (Reference 2,3,7)
McGonigal, K. (2015). The Upside of stress: why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. NY, NY: Avery. (Reference 1, 4-6, 8)