Living With “PNS” in the Firefighter Marriage, Part 1

By Anne Gagliano

PMS—the dreaded reality of being a woman—and the most avoided topic of discussion for a man. It is so taboo that my husband cringed and suggested I not even use the word in my title at all, as no man would read any further. But for a couple to live harmoniously as husband and wife, it is something that has to be faced and handled, together. For some women it is extreme; others, not so much. Yet every woman has hormonal fluctuations that impact her both physically and emotionally; it’s just a biological fact. But don’t worry, firefighters, this column is not about PMS and how a husband should be more understanding. It is, instead, about a different kind of hormonal fluctuation just as powerful and hard to live with at times that stems from firefighting.

The human body is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, which consists of two parts: the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The two generally work opposite of each other. The SNS is primarily concerned with the expenditure of energy; the PNS, with the building up of that energy. Your brain decides, moment to moment, which is needed—energy, rest, or something in between. At night, the PNS process is totally ascendant as the body goes into complete restoration mode. During the day, the majority of the population functions in what is known as “homeostasis,” or a perfect balance between the SNS and the PNS where only mild forms of energy are expended. But for those routinely exposed to danger, it is entirely different: They fluctuate between the two in extremes, the result of which is accentuated highs and profound lows.

The moment the brain detects danger, a swift and miraculous change occurs. The SNS takes over, as it is responsible for the fight-or-flight response. It does this by releasing massive amounts of hormones, including adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol, which prepare the body for action. These hormones increase the heart rate, respiration rate, muscular strength, and skeletal tension. Cortisol allows the blood to temporarily clot faster in case of injury. The SNS releases the body’s supply of stored energy while simultaneously suppressing the unnecessary digestive and immune systems. The brain desires above all else to survive and will shift as much as two-thirds of its function from the cerebral cortex, or “thought” region, to the limbic or “wildbrain” region, which is essentially animal. Shakespeare poetically describes this process with these words from King Henry V: “But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger: Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood.”

The extreme high of the adrenaline rush is the fun part for firefighters. While at a fire, their sympathetic nervous system is ascendant, and they are alive, alert, energetic, and even cheerful. Firefighters must stay alert for long periods of time, as much as 24 hours, which requires tremendous amounts of energy. By the time they get home, parasympathetic backlash may hit, rendering them exhausted, apathetic, or possibly irritable. The greater the excitement at work, the greater the potential for PNS backlash that can debilitate them for family life. The fight-or-flight response produces a biological, hormonal roller coaster that is often more extreme than the worst cases of PMS. Therefore, it, too, must be faced and handled together if firefighter marriages are to survive.

It begins by understanding this fact: Fear-induced physical exertion is profoundly different than exercise, as hormones are involved. Physical activity, though tiring, requires no major shifts in brain or bodily functions. Fear heightens and suppresses at the same time; exercise alone does not. Fear amplifies heart rates. Hormonal-induced performance and strength increases can cause the heart rate to spike to 100% of potential maximum within 10 seconds; this does not occur from even the most extreme physical exercises. Every available amount of glucose is also expended, including “stored sources,” which can cause dramatic sugar lows as a result. After a particularly harrowing situation, a firefighter’s body literally can “crash.” It has to shut down to rest, to restore, to repair, to replenish all the resources that were expended.

Hold on, you might say, my firefighter is not afraid of firefighting; he loves it. Yes, they do love it—but the brain sees fire for what it is—dangerous. Therefore, the stress response automatically kicks in, whether the firefighter realizes it or not. This is a good thing, as adrenaline is required to perform at life-saving, superhuman levels. Veteran firefighters must always reach the psychological state known as “Condition Red” if they are to survive. “Condition White” is where most of us live, which is the “no danger zone.” Firefighters typically reside in “Condition Yellow,” which is a perpetual state of alert. They are ready for anything at a moment’s notice; they are survivors, they have to be. But the optimum level of performance when confronted by danger is “Condition Red,” when heart rates spike but fear is tempered by experience, which keeps the veteran from panicking. Without experience, firefighters can become incapacitated by fear and descend into what’s known as “Condition Gray or Black” in which they can no longer function. Fear is a gift; it brings needed strength and courage. With proper training, firefighters can achieve skills that seem almost impossible to the rest of us.

We marry firefighters for these reasons and more. They are alphas–strong, capable, confident, and caring. They are warriors by nature—incredibly brave and willing to fight for others. There is nothing more appealing than that. Firefighting is sexy, but PNS backlash is not. We spouses, unfortunately, seem to mostly see the latter, as we don’t get to go into the fires with them. PNS backlash is just as much a reality as PMS; both are a consequence of fluctuating hormonal levels, which cannot be helped. And for this reason they should be viewed with understanding and compassion.

In my next column, I will go into the specifics of what backlash looks like at home and how my firefighter and I have learned to live with it.


Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 29 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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