By Anne Gagliano
Scenario: A Lexington County firefighter relaxes on the couch of his South Carolina home. His little girl loves to play with him. She serves him a “meal” of a small rubber cheeseburger on a child’s plate. She leaves to fetch another toy for Daddy, and when she returns sees that he’s fallen asleep. Quietly placing the toy unacknowledged beside him, this little girl wonders—as many firefighters’ children do— “What’s up with Daddy?”
Tasha Brewster had this to say about her sleepy husband on that couch: “Our children are always pining for our firefighter’s time, and he tries his best. Our eight-year-old daughter Cora wanted to play, but he just got off shift and fell asleep, sitting up.”
As a young firefighter wife, I noticed this trend long ago: my normally energetic young husband sitting detached, weary, and apathetic on the couch, struggling at times to engage with our little boys. He so wanted to. And he, too, tried his best. But it was there, this overwhelming fatigue when he got home. Common sense dictated lack of sleep from a 24-hour shift, but it was more than that. It often took days to get his energy back, and then he was headed off to work again.
The cycle could be brutal. I didn’t know what it was called back then, but I’ve come to understand it now. It’s not just sleep deprivation, but parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) backlash. PNS backlash is profoundly more exhausting than just sleep deprivation or physical exertion alone because hormones are involved.
What exactly is PNS backlash and why do firefighters experience this? It is a result of experiencing high stress, especially from danger. When threatened, the body responds. This is accomplished through the autonomic nervous system, which controls all bodily functions, some of which are voluntary, some automatic. This system is divided into two subcategories: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and PNS. The two generally work in opposition to one another. The SNS is primarily concerned with the expenditure of energy and is considered the “fight-or-flight system.” The PNS, often called the “feed and breed” system, builds and replenishes that energy by allowing the body to “rest and digest.” When danger is encountered, the SNS kicks into high gear and alerts all systems to battle; this is known as a “sympathetic surge” which uses a great deal of the body’s energy reserves. As many as 30 hormones—the primary ones being adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol—are involved, which increase heart rate, respiration rate, skeletal and muscular strength, sharpen vision, and suppress digestion and the immune system, all at the same time. The greater the danger, the greater the surge. Following a work shift at which your firefighter has had several runs, they are at a significant risk of crashing from exhaustion. The SNS shuts down when all energy is expended and is replaced by inputs from the PNS demanding restoration; this is backlash. Be prepared for this to happen, spouses and firefighters. It is inevitable.
A perpetually heightened SNS has negative repercussions. although designed to help us survive life-threatening emergencies, as a catabolic process, it breaks down tissue and expends too much energy. Our bodies are not meant to have a continually activated SNS from the fight-or-flight response, but unfortunately, for firefighters, they are exposed to danger triggers every shift for years, even decades, over the span of a career. If the body spends too much time in SNS, it is forced to neglect the PNS, and our health can suffer. When professionals say that too much stress is bad for you, what they really mean is that an activated SNS, without a return to PNS, can result in a type of adrenaline poisoning. A little saves your life, but too much renders you exhausted, unsettled, in cognitive decline, and sleepless. Over time, too much adrenaline compromises the immune and digestive systems, and the body simply cannot shut down long enough to repair itself. This, sadly, is what’s up with Daddy (or Mommy), and why they often can’t stay awake long enough to play on that couch. That’s the bad news.
But here’s the good news: a balance between SNS and PNS can be achieved, even for the highly stressed firefighter. The goal is to get to PNS as quickly as possible and give the body a chance to rest, repair, and replenish itself. The more time we spend in PNS, the faster we bounce back and gain strength. With replenishment, Mommy and Daddy will be able to stay awake and play, on and off that couch. Following are a few tips to help the weary firefighter reach PNS quickly to give their body a chance to revitalize:
Restorative sleep. Sleep is essential for the firefighter, but not just light sleep—restorative sleep. Light sleep stages, including rapid eye movement (REM), where dreams occur, can be similar to wakefulness. It is only during non-REM sleep that the balance shifts from SNS to PNS dominance, which is the time of deepest recovery. Make sure your firefighter gets deep sleep as frequently as possible. Darkness, quiet or white/pink noise, cool temperatures, and melatonin are great sleep aids.
Massage. A massage may not just be a luxury but a requirement for the highly stressed. More and more studies are saying so. The reason being, massage has been shown to restore balance between SNS and PNS quickly and effectively. Massage helps the body relax even when stressed by activating the PNS. A balanced SNS and PNS makes the body stronger, calmer, and able to fight infection. Some insurance plans even cover massage as it is proven to be so beneficial to health. Check to see if yours does.
Prayer/meditation/reading. Quiet, mindful activities slow the breathing rate, which calms the body and helps it reach PNS more quickly. Slower breathing lowers heart rates and blood pressure and tells the body, “We’re safe now, so relax.”
Breathing rates. Breathing straddles both the automatic and controlled nervous system (as does blinking.) A deliberately slowed breathing rate is a hallmark of PNS; it calms the body down even when highly stressed. To activate PNS, inhale for a count of 2; hold for a count of 5, then exhale for a count of 7. Repeat as needed till you feel relaxed.
Stretching/yoga. Stretching reduces lactic acid in tense muscles which helps the body relax.
Nutrition. Consuming less stimulants like caffeine and sugar facilitates PNS. An antistress diet is high in protein and nutrient rich foods such as vegetables and fruits.
Exercise. This may seem contrary to reaching PNS through activating the SNS, but light aerobic exercise does precisely that by helping the body burn off adrenaline and other stress hormones that keep it from reaching PNS.
Make every effort, firefighter, to find that balance between energy and rest so that you can bounce back quickly, and even withstand future stress. This will help you stay your best at work and, more importantly, at home. Having the energy to play with those little ones is as good as it gets.