In our society stress, anxiety, and depression are common and often related issues that affect more than 50 percent of adults. While certain levels of stress are part of life and can even be a positive force that motivates you to react quickly during emergencies, too much stress, too often is not. Additionally, research shows that firefighters have triple the risk of stress disorders. During an immediate crisis, you need the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol to pump you up. However, that same response during non-emergency moments, such as being stuck in traffic, in a line at the bank, or while having dinner with your family can have detrimental effects on your health.
Often, stress in firefighters presents as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which occurs after repeated exposure to traumatic, dangerous, and potentially life-threatening events that come hand-in-hand with the work you do. Untreated, chronic stress or worry, anxiety, depression, and/or PTSD is shown to increase the risk of in heart disease, high blood pressure, osteoporosis, diabetes, cancer, strokes, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, insomnia, excessive fatigue, unwanted weight gain or weight loss, difficulty concentrating, panic attacks, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), indigestion, abdominal pain, substance abuse, alcoholism, and mortality.
Learning strategies to manage chronic stress and other stress disorders can decrease your risk of these symptoms and improve happiness, relaxation, and overall better health. Unfortunately, studies that look at firefighters and stress issues, also indicate that many don’t seek treatment because of concerns about stigma.
It’s not a happy picture. Think about what can happen when you put a car under an extreme amount of stress—if you drive an automobile long distances for excessive periods of time, in extreme temperatures without stopping, getting gas, changing the oil, or following other standard maintenance practices your car will break down earlier than it would if you gave it some TLC. Not just your body needs rest and care, so does your mind, especially when it comes to stress. Under excessive tension, you can overheat, run out of “fuel,” or burn up your own “engine.” It’s exhausting.
Table of Contents
Negative Effect of Stress
- Too much stress hurts your physical, emotional, and mental health.
- Firefighters have 3 times the risk of stress issues compared to the general public.
- You can lower your stress level by incorporating a social Mediterranean lifestyle.
- Your stress response is naturally higher in the first half of the day, and decreases at night.
- Healthy sleep, mindfulness, exercise, and diet can all help you to decrease stress.
How can I lower my stress level?
Thankfully, there are many simple strategies you can employ to reduce and treat stress and to bring your emotional health back into balance. Here’s how:
- Live a Mediterranean Lifestyle: Studies of the people who live a Mediterranean lifestyle show that these leisure activities and social interactions reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. The Mediterranean lifestyle can help. Why? Because it’s more than just a diet, it’s a way of life. These cultures prioritize and include a great deal of social interaction—most meals are shared with family and friends, people spend more time outdoors getting fresh air and sunshine, and they are more likely to leisurely walk or bike to the market or to attend to other errands.
- Understand Your Stress Clock: Certain glands in your body are responsible for producing and releasing the stress hormones that help you to be alert, and also to respond to stressful experiences. These glands follow a schedule of a sort that is influenced or “set” by light, sleep, activity, diet, and stressful events. In the past, humans slept at night when it was dark and were active during the daylight hours. Your stress clock is made to work according to this natural schedule, but that’s no longer how we live. Today’s modern world, especially for a firefighter, regularly and repeatedly requires you to manage an atypical exposure to light. You are often awake during naturally dark hours (shift work), and stressful situations during these night time hours is harder on your body. Why? Cortisol and adrenaline are both naturally more responsive and active during the earlier part of the day, and less so at night (when you might need them). You can’t rest and recover if your stress hormones are elevated, but you might need your stress response at night if a call comes over the line. You can combat this disruption to your stress response by taking steps to get restful sleep for seven to nine hours at night whenever you are not at work.
- Exercise: Doing any exercise for 30-minutes to an hour a day helps your body to better respond to and recover from stress without it hurting your mind or body.
- Be Mindful: Being mindful is the ability to be—mentally and physically—to be fully conscious and aware in the present moment. What are you thinking about right now? It’s likely that you’re reviewing a scenario of something that already happened, or you’re busy creating a mental to-do list for what needs to be done in the future. To some extent, this is perfectly natural. Our minds are made to evaluate and plan. It’s one of the reasons the human animal has survived for so long. However, if you spend all your time in the past or future, you leave no space to check in with the now, and this both elevates stress and leaves you unaware of your emotional balance. Awareness of the stress you are experiencing is the first step to letting it go. Some cultures are better at cultivating this state of now-ness than others by encouraging meditation, and mind-body exercises such as yoga or tai chi are a regular daily activity. All of these activities have been shown to lower stress and improve mood. Our culture could take some lessons from these. You can reduce stress by learning to meditate, practicing relaxation techniques, and including mind/body practices.
- Slow Down: “I’m too busy!” It’s the number one excuse that people give for not taking the time to get enough sleep, exercise, or to prepare healthy meals. On the flip side, prioritizing these activities gives you more time in your day because slumber, physical activity, and eating healthy lowers stress and increases energy while improving emotional balance and stability. On your days off incorporate a ritual of meditating or just breathing slowly and deeply—even 5 minutes can help you to reset your mindset and lower stress—then move on to prioritizing your sleep, exercise, and healthy eating.
- Get Outside Help: Sharing your worries or concerns with family and friends helps you to lower stress, but that’s not all you can do. We go and get a physical from our doctor once a year—your mental health is just as important. If you are suffering from one or all of these conditions, and it is affecting your daily life, do consider checking out some cognitive-behavioral therapy. It’s been shown to help address and reduce these symptoms.