Firefighters face unique challenges that are above and beyond ordinary workday stress. Their lifestyle of service brings them in routine contact with highly stressful situations that can have potentially permanent damaging effects on their mental and physical well-being. Stress reduction and effective stress management techniques are imperative for better job performance and better life experience.
A common scenario: It is 3 a.m.; the firefighters have had their last run at 11 p.m. Just as they settle down to an unpredictable amount of sleep, the alarm goes off: “Attention all units, house fire at 123 Adams St. Caller reports children trapped.“ From a semi-rested yet semi-awake quasi-sleep state, the firefighters are up in a flash. Immediately they put on their turnout gear while composing thoughts and focusing on the job as a member of a firefighting team. Heart racing, breath quickened, senses heightened, and adrenaline pumping, they climb onto the fire truck. The lights flash on, the doors open, and the fire truck roars into the cold dark morning, with the faint smell of smoke in the air
The firefighter’s physiological response to this common scenario is the “Fight or Flight Response,” an ancient survival response. The body automatically knows how to respond. It is the same physiology that prepared our ancestors to face the threat of a large bear, a hungry tiger, or the sudden discovery of a nearby snake about to strike.
What happens during the “Fight or Flight Response”?
- Heart beats faster/pumps more blood.
- Blood pressure rises.
- You consume more oxygen and expel more carbon dioxide.
- Perspiration increases.
- Adrenal glands pump out adrenaline, noradrenalin, and cortisol.
- Pancreas releases more glucagon and less insulin, raising blood sugar.
- Shunt blood from the digestive organs to the muscles.
- Release less rejuvenating hormones (DHEA, growth hormone).
- Immune system becomes suppressed.
- Platelets become stickier.
The result of this constant and regular activation of the “Flight or Fight Response” is that your health can be weakened.
- An Increase in blood pressure and heart stress can lead to coronary heart disease.
- An increase in stress hormones can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and addictions.
- An increase of blood sugar can lead to diabetes and obesity.
- A decrease in circulation to the digestive tract can lead to digestive disturbances.
- A decrease in growth and sex hormones can lead to premature aging.
- A decrease in immunity can lead to infections and cancer.
- An increase in sticky platelets can lead to heart attacks and strokes.
This stressful “Fight or Flight Response” is routinely repeated tens of thousands of times over the course of a firefighter’s career.
Additional stress on the firefighter’s physiology complicates the ability of the body to naturally repair, restore, and rejuvenate. Primarily, the natural circadian rhythm is interrupted by getting up in the middle of the night to respond to emergency calls.
The physiology and psychology of the firefighter is compromised by the ingestion of toxic smoke, toxic sights, smells, sounds, and touch.
Meals routinely are not properly digested due to the physiology of the “Flight or Fight Response” and the constant interruption of meals and digestion by emergency responses.
All too often, the firefighters complete their work shift and go directly to a second job. This extra stress is willingly accepted, to provide the best quality of life for his/her family. The physiological consequences of this lifestyle accumulate over the years to further weaken the firefighter’s health.
Can Yoga help to counteract these incredible stressors?
What is Yoga?
Yoga is one of the world’s oldest systems of natural health and rejuvenation. Through a series of different techniques, Yoga offers the participant increased strength, flexibility, balance, and endurance to maintain internal and external balance on and off the job. Through powerful breathing techniques, Yoga offers the firefighter the ability to enter into the rigorous stressful situations of his work and daily life while remaining calm, balanced, and focused. Professional athletes from around the world have been trained using these techniques to compete with calmer breath and slower heart rate, thus increasing endurance and performance, as well as maintaining focus while experiencing greater enjoyment of the process. Just as firefighters respond to manage and mitigate a crisis, Yoga is there to build strength, flexibility, and balance and manage stress for the firefighter.
Firefighters will find that Yoga is not about bending into a pretzel-like position. It is about a balanced workout and a balanced lifestyle. Perhaps the most widely accepted and easily learned Yoga technique is the Sun Salutations. This series of exercises accomplishes the goal of exercising all of the major muscle groups. Through a series of extensions and contractions accompanied with breathing rhythms, a complete mind/body workout is accomplished. Sun Salutations is a series of movements that flow with the breath, strengthening the heart, improving circulation, calming and strengthening the right and left hemispheres of the brain, strengthening and lengthening all of the major muscles in the body, increasing blood flow throughout the body, and nourishing every single cell in the body (blood is what delivers oxygen and nutrients to all of the cells, keeping you strong and healthy). While promoting spinal flexibility and rejuvenating the nervous system, Sun Salutations balances the endocrine system helping to support immune functions. Additional benefits of Sun Salutations are strengthening of the heart, lungs, and organs and lubrication of the joints, which can prevent arthritis. The practice of Sun Salutations will strengthen your body and mind, allowing you to enjoy every day in every way.
Sun Salutations can be used on its own or before or after a more strenuous routine.
A key point to remember when performing Sun Salutations is to move comfortably according to how your body feels. Yoga is not a “No Pain No Gain” approach. It is an integrative approach that should always leave the firefighter ready to work. These techniques are very powerful because the cardiovascular system will have an easier time returning to normal after a workout and the body won’t have as much repair work to do.
SCBA and breathing techniques
Firefighters learn every aspect of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). It is part of their training to survive in dangerous environments. The ancient discoverers of Yoga also learned every aspect of their “self” contained breathing apparatus. They learned how to use their nose, mouth, and lungs to control their physiology and keep it in a state of optimum performance while performing activity.
While there are several breathing techniques in Yoga, perhaps the most powerful and beneficial to firefighters is the Sounding Breath and Rhythmic Breathing. Brain wave studies have shown that athletes performing while practicing the Sounding Breath were able to maintain brain waves associated with a resting state. With practice, participants were able to perform activities with less exertion and breathing and a reduced heartbeat.
With a slow and steady breath, breathe through the nostrils and gently contract the back of your throat, creating a soft and audible sound similar to the ocean. The sound is similar to a gentle snore as if you were in a deep, relaxed sleep. To learn how to create this sound, practice whispering “haaa” sound with your mouth open on both the exhalation and inhalation, or exhale out of your mouth the “haaa” sound as if you were blowing fog on eyeglasses to clean them. Feel the sensation of the breath in the back of the throat. Then close your mouth and breathe in and out through the nostrils, creating the sounding breath.
- Sit comfortably with your eyes closed. Place your hands in your lap.
- Breathe in through the nostrils, two breaths in and then two breaths out.
- Maintain a steady rhythm.
- The breaths in and out are performed with power and strength.
Inhalation is performed through the nostrils. When breathing is taken in through the nostrils, air is forced into the lower portion of the lungs. The lower portion of the lungs is where 80 percent of the lungs and blood interact. Thus, there is a more efficient exchange of oxygen. The body is also able to more efficiently get rid of toxins and waste in the form of carbon dioxide (CO2). Breathing deeply into the lower portion of the lungs has the additional benefit of massaging the heart muscle and relaxing the vegus nerve, thus activating the parasympathetic response, which is the opposite of the “Flight or Fight Response.”
You can use Sounding Breath or Rhythmic Breathing while climbing ladders or stairs or walking or jogging. Immediate results are that by being able to perform these activities with less exertion, the firefighter will experience increased work capacity, less fatigue, and quicker recovery and rehabilitation.
The benefits of a regular practice of Sun Salutations and breathing techniques are that the firefighter’s reaction and internal absorption of stress will be minimized. Everyone internalizes stress differently. Some internalize stress as a line chiseled in rock. It is hard on the nervous system and is not easily dissolved. For others, that same stress is internalized as a line in the sand. It has a noticeable effect on the nervous system and its impact is not permanent. For others, stress is internalized like a line drawn on water. It has ripples of effect as it is experienced with no noticeable long-term impact. Yoga and Yogic breathing help make this possible.
By minimizing the effects of stress on the nervous system and maintaining optimum health and flexibility, the firefighter will have greater enjoyment of life, on or off the job. Add more life to your retirement years enjoying flexibility, strength, and energy with these Sun Salutations and breathing techniques.
For further information, visit www.yoga4firefighters.com or www.clairediab.com.
Claire Diab is an internationally recognized Yoga therapist. She is the director of the Yoga Program for the Chopra Center founded by Dr. Deepak Chopra and Dr. David Simon. She is an adjunct professor of Asian Studies at Seton Hall University. She is the author of several books and DVDs on Yoga including “Yoga For Firefighters.”
Dennis Boyle is a retired fire director and acting chief with the West Orange (NJ) Fire Department. He was the recipient of the 1999 New Jersey Deputy Fire Chiefs “Fire Officer of the Year” award.