Changing Your Mind About Stress

By Shannon McQuaide

How do you change your mindset about stress after decades of hearing that “stress kills”? The answer is through practices involving functional movements, such as yoga, that allow each individual to experience the sensations of stress in the body without judging the sensations as bad and harmful.

I was recently talking to a San Francisco Bay Area fire captain about stress. I had led her entire department of more than 100 mostly male firefighters through FireFlex Functional Movement workshops during the fall. It took seven days to take small groups of approximately 10 to 15 firefighters through a 75-minute workshop.


During the first 15 minutes of the workshops, I shared the brain science supporting the benefits of body awareness and breathing practices to relieve the impact of chronic stress and psychological upheaval, and even to heal trauma. The latest science demonstrates that it’s not stress that’s bad for us but our relationship to it. Researchers explain that stress is what we feel when what we care about is on the line. Our body mobilizes to help us rise and meet the challenge. This certainly sounds like what firefighters deal with regularly!

But what’s so eye opening about the new research is that people who view stress as helpful and beneficial have very different cardiovascular profiles than people who experience stress as harmful. According to the Harvard study, the profiles of those that view stress as helpful look more like those of people experiencing joy or courage. I recommend watching this TED talk for more information.


Toward the end of my conversation with the fire captain, we mused about a time in the fire service when talking openly about one’s emotional or psychological state will become as commonplace as the discussions that take place around physical pains and ailments. And that the fire culture of the future will have developed policies and wellness initiatives that don’t discount emotional and psychological change but rather provide time and access to resources that include functional movements and tactical breathing practices, giving firefighters opportunities to feel their own bodies and assess how they are managing stress. This self-awareness could help firefighters be positively transformed by their experiences.

I also am confident we will also look back on this time and credit the chiefs, lieutenants, captains, and firefighters of the San Francisco Bay Area, who more than any other region in the country have embraced just such opportunities.  


Shannon McQuaide is a registered yoga instructor with Yoga Alliance and the founder of the FireFLEX YogaTM program. FireFLEX Yoga was developed through her work with the San Jose (CA) Fire Department, where she continues to lead FireFLEX Yoga classes. She is a certified functional movement trainer and has a master of arts degree in leadership and psychology.

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