Firefighting is cited as one of the most stressful occupations. Indeed, occupational stress is inherent to this job. However, the long-term effects of unmanaged stress can have detrimental effects on firefighters’ health. Stress can negatively affect the mind, body, mood and behavior. The human body was designed to respond to stress, but not made to have a continuously aroused stress response. Chronic stress that’s left unchecked can contribute to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical health problems, such as high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Chronic stress has also been shown to lead to job dissatisfaction and subsequent burnout. If firefighters are able to recognize common symptoms of stress within themselves, then they will be able to better combat the negative effects.
Impact on mental health
Everyone encounters stress in their work and personal lives. People often argue that stress can be helpful in various ways (e.g., motivation). This can be true, depending on the frequency, intensity and duration of stress. Short-term stress can ignite our “Fight-or-Flight” response. As a firefighter, this stress tends to be a staple on shift and can give that adrenaline rush on calls, but at what point does stress become bad?
Unfortunately, there is not a big red side-effect label on stress, so when firefighters feel common signs of stress—such as anxiousness, irritability, nervousness or even experience memory and concentration impairments—stress may not seem like the obvious culprit. And as noted, chronic stress can lead to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Not only does stress impact mental health with mood changes, but it can have lasting effects on the brain. Chronic stress that is not properly managed releases cortisol, which can alter the brain’s structure and cause damage over a long period of time.
Impact on physical health
Stress can manifest itself not only mentally but also physically. Firefighters face physically grueling challenges on the job, from transporting patients to climbing flights of stairs while wearing bunker gear. The physical abilities that a firefighter needs to have in order to perform at optimum level can be greatly affected by stress. Some of the common physical symptoms of stress include dizziness, headaches, grinding teeth or clenched jaws, gastrointestinal problems (e.g., indigestion, nausea), muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, excess fatigue, racing heart, weight fluctuation and changes in appetite. Over time, symptoms of stress can deteriorate the physical health of firefighters by weakening the immune system leading to more sick days and, in the long term, contributing to muscular pain, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.
Identify Triggers: Recognizing what triggers your unique stress response is the first step to managing your stress. Although you can try to avoid these triggers, some may be unavoidable. Therefore, finding positive coping mechanisms to deal with unavoidable stress is the next best thing.
Healthy Nutrition: Remember to hydrate and eat a healthy balanced diet (e.g., lean meats, fruits and vegetables). Reach for a banana the next time you feel stressed, as potassium can help regulate blood pressure, which can be elevated during stress. Drinking plenty of water is important to flush out the stress-related toxins in your body. The right food will give you the proper energy to tackle whatever challenges may come your way.
Physical Activity: Get physical exercise, whether it be a game of basketball, running, swimming, cycling or even just taking the dog for a walk. The endorphins released can rid the body of toxins to help fight stress.
Muscle Relaxation/Breathing Exercises: Yoga may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does have a long list of benefits to help the body physically unwind. Even if yoga isn’t on your to-do list, simple breathing exercises have been shown to balance carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body to help mentally and physically restore the body.
Sleeping Habits: Making sure you are getting a quality nights rest is very important. During sleep the body repairs itself, so a lack of quantity and quality of sleep can lead the body to be unable to fight the stressors of the day. Habits like staying away from caffeine and other stimulants before going to bed and creating a cool, calm and dark sleeping environment will help program your body to dial down before sleep. Adopting healthy sleep hygiene habits can help combat stress.
Humor: Laughing has shown to have numerous benefits including stress release. Laughing can physically and mentally change the way your body reacts to stress including boosting your immune system, stimulating organs, reducing tension and improving overall mood.
Treat yourself: Take time to engage in activates that you enjoy, whether they be by yourself or with a group of friends. Taking part in hobbies or activities that you enjoy allows for the mind and body to concentrate on something other than what is causing you stress.
If you feel you are struggling with stress, please seek help from a medical practitioner or a mental health professional. Also, there may be departmental resources through your Employee Assistance Program or outside organizations that are available. See the sidebar for additional resources that may be helpful if you are struggling with stress.