First Responder Stress: Yoga Helps Those Who Help Us

Regardless of whether we were directly affected by Hurricanes Harvey or Irma, the horrific and heart-warming images we saw across television and social media are still imprinted on our minds. Imagine the gravity of these disasters if you were among those responsible for maintaining public safety and cleanup. Imagine the lack of sleep, the wide range of emotions, and the longing to be with your own family during the time of need—this, for weeks on end. How would you cope with these cumulative stresses? And what effective anti-stress supports can we offer to our hometown heroes?

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First Responder Post-Hurricane Health Toll

First Responder work is stressful, unpredictable, and dynamic as they cope simultaneously with the situation at hand, the public, the media, victim’s families, all while worrying about the safety and needs of their families at home.

Following Hurricane Katrina, a total of 1382 first responders participated in a study conducted 6-9 months and 13-18 months after the disaster. Participants included respondents from police, fire, emergency medical services, and city workers.

More than one-quarter of the first responders reported the following traumatic experiences: 70% witnessed injury or death; 93% experienced damage to their home; 25% had an injury to a friend; and 30% experienced previous loss or trauma. Data also revealed that at least 10% of the respondents had significant levels of post-traumatic stress symptoms; 25% of the participants reported significant levels of depression; more than 40% reported increased alcohol use and 41% experienced conflict with their partner. Symptoms of post-traumatic stress or depression did not decrease within 18 months of Hurricane Katrina.

Emergency Responder Cumulative Stress Effects

Historic hurricanes aside, First Responders regularly experience long shifts, lack of sleep, and chronic exposure to critical incidents. This takes a toll on their health. One recent study found that among police officers, the prevalence of depressive symptoms was nearly double that of the general population, and the occurrence of heart disease was nearly 7% higher than the general population.  And, a 2015 survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that attempted suicide rates were more than 10 times that of the general population.

Leading up to these larger health issues, common warning signs of cumulative First Responder stress include emotional detachment, cynicism, suspiciousness, alcohol and substance abuse, as well as the Responder’s social isolation from family, friends, and co-workers.

Yoga Improves First Responder Wellness

Yoga is effective in managing First Responder stress, as well as physical and emotional stress-related disorders:

  • Management of PTSD, Secondary Trauma and Chronic Stress Symptoms
  • Improved duration and quality of sleep;
  • Reduced experience of chronic pain;
  • Heightened cardiovascular conditioning;
  • Lower blood pressure and weight management;
  • Improved social functioning, concentration, focus and mood.

An additional benefit is that yoga is non-pharmaceutical. It has relatively low cost, with no side effects, and is widely accessible.

First Responder Wellness Programs

Both of my parents were First Responders. My husband is a First Responder, as are many family friends. I know first-hand the physical and emotional health issues that can surface from the job. I believe that First Responder health is an important issue that ultimately affects us all. Let us take immediate, simple and effective steps to help those who help us. Please contact me to discuss how to develop a First Responder wellness program where you live.

Jodi Gonzales ATR, NCC, RYT200
 

Jodi Gonzales ATR, NCC, RYT200 is a credentialed art therapist, counselor and yoga instructor. She is the creator of Art + Yoga Wellness, a powerful program that provides effective tools for improving resilience, including emotional and physical health. Jodi offers presentations and group workshops both in-person and on-line. To learn about how Art + Yoga Wellness will benefit you or your organization, contact Jodi at shift@artyogawellness.com or 520-276-1878. Current events and workshops are posted at http://artyogawellness.com/events/ and on Facebook.