Insights for High Stress Professions
First responders have a stressful job. You have long hours, shift work, your work is reactionary, you don’t know what your day will be like when you get to work. Then you have the normal day-to-day stressors (traffic, money, family hassles) that most people experience. You’re still human; this takes a toll, and it’s important to have really powerful tools for managing this.
There are a lot of things that help manage stress, like getting good sleep, breathing strategies, mindfulness, therapy, etc., but this article isn’t intended to talk about how to use those. This article is a framework for thinking differently about how to deal with stress.
Complete the Stress Cycle
The stress response ramps up like a roller coaster. It triggers a surge of energy that enables you to fight or flee from threats (or freeze if fighting and fleeing aren’t options). It needs to ramp back down to baseline to complete the stress cycle, but we don’t usually give it the chance (especially when the stress response is triggered again before our body is able to fully restore homeostasis).
Completing the stress cycle is about signaling safety, clearing stress hormones, and restoring the body to homeostasis after it’s been activated. There are seven simple evidence-based methods for completing the stress cycle:
The first four are the most portable, easy to get on the fly, and appropriate in most professional settings.
Recover Spent Energy
Your stress response ramped up to help you manage a threat, then after the situation was over, you completed the stress cycle. Well done! That whole roller coaster up and down spent a lot of your energy. It’s important to do something to help recover and boost your energy so you have more bandwidth for whatever you may face next.
The most important thing is for you to use the strategies that seem to work for you. Given the pace of your work, I also think it’s important to have strategies that are short, portable and potent. I like to call these “microdoses.” (These will look similar to some of the complete the stress cycle strategies)
Now that we’ve dealt with the acute effects of stress in our bodies, let’s move on to dealing with the stressors that cause the stress cycle. There are stressors in your life that you can control, and ones you can’t. We can use different strategies based on whether or not these stressors are things we can control.
Grip forces are things you can control. Just like you can grip a pen and maneuver it in space to write what you want, grip forces are things you can control, influence or manipulate. You can control the choices you make, the plans you create to manage your life, and the attitude you bring with you. Gravity forces are things you can’t control or influence; they are happening to you and you can’t change that. In these situations you can control your attitude, and you can try to minimize how much energy this situation takes from you.
Maybe some of your stressors are what and when you can eat, paying your bills on time, relationship challenges, stress with management and administration. A tricky thing about many stressors is that there are some things we can control and some things we can’t. For example, you can’t control when your bills are due but you can control how you make a plan to pay them in a timely manner. You may not be able to control when you eat, but you can control how you prepare for those situations.
Dealing with Grip Forces
Since we can control Grip forces, we want to take control over these particular stressors in our lives. First of all, if something on your plate isn’t all that important, practice letting go. It doesn’t need to take up space on your plate and it’s not worth spending any of your limited resources on it. If it is important, then it’s worth taking the time to make a plan. Oftentimes, important things are going to be around for a while, so we need to have a plan for how to manage them well on an ongoing basis.
What is your plan to pay your bills in a timely manner? Autopay? Paying when you get the bill? Setting up reminders? Negotiating alternate payment plans? What is your plan to have easy and healthy meals that are ready to eat so you don’t have to stress about making good choices when you’re starving because you didn’t get to take your lunch today? Remember, you have control or influence over these, and exercising that control is very empowering to help us manage stress.
Dealing with Gravity Forces
Gravity forces are tricky. You can’t control, change or influence the situation, which makes the situation more stressful and frustrating. If you’re in debt now, at this point, you can’t change the fact that you’re in debt. If you’re injured now, you can’t change the fact that you’re injured. If you have toxic leadership, you can’t change the fact that you have toxic leadership. You can’t control the nature of your job as a first responder. What you can do is control your attitude and how you interact with these stressors. This is easier said than done, but a great place to start building skill.
To minimize the impact of these stressors, you can set clear boundaries, and you can reframe the situation. To reframe the situation, prompt yourself to think about it differently with one of the sentence starters below:
It’s important to note that reframing the situation doesn’t take a sucky situation and suddenly make it a great one. It’s also not trying to cover crap with flowers (ignore the situation). It’s trying to find a way to see the situation that doesn’t drain as much of your energy.
Healthy boundaries are about indicating what is and isn’t acceptable for you. It’s also recognizing what is on your side of the street (or problem to solve) and what isn’t. Many times we spend extra energy taking care of others, solving problems for them, being annoyed by them, complaining about them. In these situations, and in any situation where you may be feeling resentful, setting boundaries can be really powerful. They may sound like:
Make Space to Unpack
You’ve been carrying a heavier and heavier load over time. This load consists of the stress, trauma, frustrations and unpredictability of your job. If you don’t make space to unpack and lighten that load, it will only get heavier and harder to carry. It may also start to tumble around you, coming out in ways you can’t control.
Making space to unpack is best done with skilled professionals. What resources are available through your organization? Have you used them? Do you know them to have helped others?
Training App: Resilience WODs for First Responders
eBook: First Responder Resilience eBook
Blog: Daily Habits for Boosting Resilience in First Responders
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