The term “fit for duty” in modern firefighting goes beyond being physically fit to include being resilient to the stress and emotional effects of the job. For individual resilience, this means having the ability to prepare for and recover from stressful events so the responder can return to duty with some sense of normality. To accomplish this, responders must sleep well, eat right, and positively engage with peers.
Unmanaged, constant exposure to stress and adversity can affect relationships, cause health issues, hinder safety at work, and even lead to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and suicide. Resilience begins with understanding the stressors that can lead to such negative consequences. Responding to the needs of a community during a crisis can have a lasting effect on the way emergency responders process the world around them. Being a resilient responder starts with a commitment to personal wellbeing by sleeping well, eating well, and living well.
Get a Good Night’s Sleep
Resilience begins with reporting for duty mentally and physically ready to respond, which starts by being well rested. Getting adequate sleep is a critical component of one’s physical health and mental wellbeing and is essential to resilience. Sleep helps the brain function and process the stressors of the world, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), which is part of the National Institutes of Health. Sleep also prepares the brain for duty by increasing attention span, decision-making abilities, and creative problem-solving skills.
NHLBI also points to the value of sleep in managing physical wellbeing and repairing the effects of stress on the body. When sleeping, the body heals and regenerates, and even has the ability to repair the heart and blood vessels affected by a variety of stressors. Alternatively, sleep deficiency can negatively affect emotions, behaviors, and ability to cope with changes. In turn, these emotional and behavioral changes can lead to elevated levels of stress, which have been linked to depression, risky behaviors, and even suicide. A continued lack of sleep can lead to other complications such as increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.
Take Time to Eat Right
To be resilient, responders also need to eat a healthy, well-balanced diet and avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol, which can interfere with sleep cycles and exaggerate stressors on the body and mind. Excessive amounts of alcohol or caffeine can also increase blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association. Instead, firefighters need to drink large amounts of water to stay hydrated.
Although stress initially may reduce appetite, stress eating can also become a significant problem, according to an article in Harvard Health. Prolonged exposure to significant stress triggers the body’s survival mechanisms, which includes an increase in appetite. If the body perceives that stress is ever-present, it may cause a continuation of appetite. Stress eating can lead to overeating comfort foods that are high in fats and sugars, which in turn can cause weight gain and lead to obesity.
Stress can also change the type of food desired. Several studies, including one published in February 2012 by the “Harvard Mental Health Letter” have shown that “physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both.” Foods that are heavy in fat and sugar may interfere with the area of the brain that identifies stress. These comfort foods may reduce stress but create cravings for what may be unhealthy choices. To counteract the cravings for unhealthy food choices, firefighters need to focus their food choices on fruits and vegetables and limit the intake of foods high in fat, salt, and sugar. In addition, drinking water and exercising have the ability to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Engage Peers, Partners & Friends
Having healthy relationships is a critical component of a personal resilience strategy. Being mentally prepared for duty includes having the ability to process and discuss experiences with trusted people. Strong relationships help responders maintain a positive and calm outlook. It is essential to have a support structure to be resilient and have the ability to recover from stressful events.
The American Psychological Association (APA) released an online brochure that can assist individuals in building resilience. Two factors that they associate with resilience are communication skills and the capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses. Although an individual can build these capabilities alone, having relationships allows peers, partners, and friends to be part of their support network. Also, being there for others in need can be beneficial to building personal resilience. Strong relationships with others create environments where changes in personalities and behaviors can be recognized and mitigated early.
No one is immune to the physical and emotional impacts of stress. Just as physical conditioning takes time, building a resilient lifestyle takes time. However, it is an essential component of ensuring fitness for duty.
A previous version of this article was originally published in “In Public Safety” on 16 May 2017. Reprinted with permission.