Stress Strategies

This article first appeared in Firefighting Canada

The greatest threat to the health and well-being of those in the fire service is stress. Stress is at the root of most, if not all, chronic illnesses like cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, depression and others.

It doesn’t matter how much you work out or how well you eat. If you are not looking after your mental well-being those efforts are diminished.

Some examples of common stressors are family issues, financial hurdles, emotional challenges and physical injuries, just to name a few.

As firefighters, you can add in specific stressors such as shift work, irregular sleep patterns, a high-pressure environment and negativity in the workplace, which can mean a fast track to a chronic state of overdrive for an untrained mind.

Building on this, there are so many distractions in our everyday life. Endless emails, texts and the ever-evolving to-do lists means our attention span is taking a beating, along with our ability to be productive and perform.

In fact, it has been estimated that we spend in total about five hours per day engaged on the Internet, either surfing, communicating and/or playing games. That is about a third of the time that we are awake.

Our average attention span is estimated to be a whopping five seconds. Goldfish are said to have a longer attention span at nine seconds. Let that sink in.

What if you could take back the steering wheel of your mind and be calmer, more mentally fit to withstand stress, and ultimately more resilient?

Taking just a five-minute “brain break” a few times a day can help to improve mental clarity, productivity, attention span and immunity, and has been shown to reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms.

The following are some strategies to help you do just that:

  • Engage more of your senses by way of the 3-2-1 strategy – The 3-2-1 strategy invites to you to engage more of your senses. Wherever you are right now, notice three things that you can see, two things that you can hear, and one thing that you can feel. You can change up the sequence as well to keep it fresh. Repeat as necessary, each time scanning your world to find new things to engage your senses in.
  • Change the channel – Simply close your eyes and take a few relaxing deep breaths. Reflect over the last 30 days and recall a pleasant memory. Step into the memory and allow yourself to relive it as if it were once again happening right before your eyes.
  • Tactical breathing or square breathing – Breathe in for a count of four, hold for a count of four, exhale for a count of four, no breath for a count of four. Repeat.
  • Leverage nature – Instead of listening to a podcast when you are out for a walk, take out your ear buds and pay attention to what is around you. Better yet, take short walks outside and around the department on your breaks. A dose of fresh air can do a world of good.
  • Brain reset with the learner’s state – This strategy is based on an ancient Hawaiian meditation called the hakalau. Look up as if you are looking between the middle of your eye brows. As you do this, find a spot high up on the wall or ceiling and gently gaze at it. Hold this for about 15 seconds. Next, while focusing on the same spot, have your eye muscles relax and allow your peripheral or side vision to come into focus. Notice objects, shapes, colours etc. while continuing to stare at the same spot. Hold for another 10 to 15 seconds. This exercise acts as a reset for your mind and is calming at the same time because it engages your parasympathetic nervous system.

Sometimes it can be challenging at first to learn how to take back the steering wheel of your mind. There are many apps available to assist you in doing this. Here are a few that I recommend:

  • Head Space – This app offers relaxing guided meditations and mindfulness techniques. The tracks on the app are generally about 10 minutes in length. This app has a free trial.
  • Insight Timer – There are more than 10,000 tracks to choose from. Choose the length of time you wish to meditate for and whether it be to relax or sleep. There are many different practitioners to choose from. This app is free.
  • Calm – The are more than 100 guided meditations to help you manage anxiety, lower stress and sleep better. Calm is a great mindfulness app for beginners and includes programs for intermediate and advanced users. This app offers a free trial.
  • Glenn Harrold – This offers hypnotherapy/guided imagery for things such as sleep, relaxation, and anxiety. Some tracks are free, and others cost a nominal amount.

During stressful times, these strategies can help bring you back to the present moment while restoring calm and sanity. Get into the consistent practice of giving your brain a break for a few minutes every day.