Updated: May 14th, 2021
First responders face more death and destruction in a typical shift than most civilians will encounter in an entire lifetime.
Firefighters, police and EMS return day after day to the challenging work of saving lives, battling evil, and dealing with devastating circumstances. The rates of sleep disorders, PTSD and suicide are striking for this population. There is an epidemic of long term stress related disorders within the first responders community, yet without these men and women, society as we know it would cease to function. There are ways we can address these widespread issues. We will discuss one such method today and this technique might surprise you.
But first, some scientific background on the topic of physiology.
The nervous system plays an essential role in the day to day operations of every human being. It is of particular importance to our law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel. The nervous system is a vastly intricate and intriguing part of our body. The following is an entry-level examination of the workings of our nervous system, how it pertains to the daily work of first responders and how we can train first responders to utilize this complex system to their benefit. To begin, I will provide a brief overview of our nervous system and how we can gain mastery and achieve optimal functioning.
There are two main branches of the nervous system, the somatic and autonomic. Somatic is known as the voluntary nervous system, responsible for all things over which we have control, think walking and jumping, or pulling hose and putting up a ladder. This is a crucial portion of the nervous system but not our focus in this article. Instead, we will turn our attention to the other branch, the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system, or “ANS”, governs what are largely unconscious processes; heart rate, digestion, and pupillary response. There is one bodily function that transcends the divide between conscious and unconscious, SNS and ANS. This critical link is respiration.
Breathing may seem like an incredibly simple thing, yet how can it exercise such power over our mental and physiological state? To understand, we must first dive a bit deeper into the autonomic nervous system.
The autonomic nervous system (think “automatic”), can be separated into two parts, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, a myriad of physiological changes occur. Our pupils dilate, our heart rate accelerates, our endocrine system releases epinephrine (adrenaline) and norepinephrine, our digestion shuts down, shunting blood to our skeletal muscles. All of these changes prepare our bodies to flee or fight, commonly known as the “fight or flight” response. This activation is essential to all humans, and especially crucial for law enforcement and fire personnel who need to be prepared to engage at a moments notice. If not kept in check, however, these reactions can create chronic, long-term stress to our psychophysiological system. Chronic stress can result in the staggering rates of burn out, PTSD, alcohol abuse and even suicide that we see all too frequently in first responder culture. Captain Dan Willis states in his book Bulletproof Spirit that suicide is the leading cause of death for police officers, with about 200 deaths annually. The frequency of suicide only increases after retirement. Any possibility of decreasing this figure deserves an in-depth investigation. Which leads us to the opposite aspect of “fight or flight.”
The flip side of the “fight or flight” response is commonly known as the “rest and digest” state. When the parasympathetic nervous system is active, the opposite physiological reactions occur; our pupils constrict, our heart rate slows, stress hormones leave our circulation, blood returns to the digestive tract, and our bodies can begin to relax and reduce our vigilance. This is also not an ideal state for first responders to be in during an incident. Police and Firefighters need to achieve sympathetic activation to do their jobs well but also need to be able to come off from that massive increase in stress when they’re not in the field and between calls. In Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, Kevin Gilmartin, Ph.D., tell us it takes 18-24 hours for the fight or flight response to leave our bodies on it’s own, allowing us to return to homeostasis, or baseline. In that time, a police officer will likely have to return to work for their next shift and a firefighter will have been on numerous calls.
So what can we do? How can we help first responders manage their physiological fluctuations without losing control or burning out?
Yoga teaches us mastery over the mind and optimal functioning of the psychophysiological system. The ancient practice of yoga has been utilized for thousands of years to teach practitioners how to achieve homeostasis under duress. In Yoga & Ayurveda by David Fawley, yoga is described as “the science of self-realization that depends upon a well functioning body and mind.” One could say the being a first responder also depends upon a well-functioning body and mind. Yoga addresses more than the physical body, and also takes into account the well-being of the mind and soul. Given the amount of trauma a first responder sees over the course of his or her career, a system that prioritizes the well-being of body, mind and spirit would be a boon to those in law, fire and EMS professions. The main principles of yoga include physical postures, ethical discipline, and most importantly, breath control. Remember our discussion of the nervous system? What was the single common link between the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems? Breath.
In yoga, there is specific work devoted to harnessing the power of the breath. In the yogic language of Sanskrit this is called Pranayama. Pranayama translates literally as “controlled expansion of the life-force”. This translation may sound esoteric or even kooky but according to Fawley, if the breath, or “life-force” can be expanded, practitioners reach a state of peace where their senses, emotions and mind are at rest. Think of breath work as a way to “hit the calm button” on the nervous system. If you consider the nature of the first responder’s work, wouldn’t being able to “hit the calm button” be a good way to counter the cumulative stress of their careers?
Utilizing the breath as tool can help first responders perform better on the job, reduce the effects of stress and improve their survivability throughout their careers.
The organization, Yoga For First Responders, has developed a protocol of yoga specifically for first responders and the unique stresses they face. The cornerstone of the training is called “Tactical Breathwork.” Tactical Breathwork encourages breathing in and out through the nose, breathing deeply into the belly and lengthening the exhalation. All of these methods allow us to quickly access the nervous system, taking that 24 hour return to homeostasis and reducing it to a manner of minutes. In as little as three minutes, proper breathing technique can take us out of sympathetic nervous system activation and bring our psychophysiological system back to a regulated and balanced state. Imagine how useful this could be to a first responder? This simple, powerful tool gives police, fire and EMS personnel a way to harness their minds, allowing them to respond to a call with more mindfulness, reset themselves between calls and transition from the adrenaline rush of work to their home lives.
If you spend any amount of time with first responders, they will tell you it’s stressful work. It takes a toll on them physically, mentally and emotionally. But it doesn’t have to shorten or end their careers. The primary purpose of bringing yoga to this population is to provide them a tool with which they can learn to self regulate. Self regulation allows first responders to quickly return to homeostasis after activation. Self regulation also allows them to properly recover, process stress, build physical and mental resilience, and improve their long term survivability. There is also the benefit of greater attention to detail, improved communication, enhanced mind/body connection, and a decrease in post traumatic stress. Imagine if these benefits could be extended to every law enforcement officer, firefighter and paramedic in the country? We could begin to address the rates of burn out, PTSD, alcohol abuse and suicide in these men and women. Yoga won’t be able to change these statistics overnight but by providing these essential skills, we can start to make a difference.
Written by YFFR Instructor and Yoga Teacher, Amy Yurus (Instructor School 009).
**Photos published were captured prior to the COVID-19 Pandemic**