How to deal with stress on and off the job.
The last blog looked at factors, such as stress, that become health risks for EMS responders.
The combination of stress and poor sleep hygiene or sleep deprivation (72% of EMS providers are poor sleepers) is a killer in itself. Add fast-food eating habits, and you have the reason that first responders score at the top of the list of professions with the highest incidence of heart disease.
In addition to looking out for each other in stressful conditions, EMS workers can contribute to all around strength of the responder team by adopting solid strategies for coping. Here are a few important strategies that can reduce stress and boost health at the same time, especially if practiced on a regular basis as part of a healthy, daily routine.
Exercise Exercise is a great stress burner. It doesn’t have to be hours of weight training. In fact, the air of competition that works so well in the field is best checked at the door. Other than general health benefits, two of the most prized bi-products of exercise are not strength but increased energy levels and flexibility. It doesn’t matter which of the countless exercise programs you choose, and the decision to exercise is not as onerous as one often thinks. Consider these facts, and just dive in:
The hollow nutritional value of fast food.
What does diet have to do with how to deal with stress? Healthy diets can protect you both from stress and the inflammation-based diseases. Together poor diet and stress lead to high risks for health problems, heart disease, and diabetes. EMS responders live life in the fast lane, and this often spills over into the way and type of food they eat — fast foods, to go. Unfortunately, fast foods are full of empty calories. Fast food cooking oil, often a blend made up largely of corn oil high in saturated fat, is best replaced by food cooked in desirable fats liked olive oil, peanut oil, or canola oil, or containing natural omega-3-rich oils found in salmon and tuna. The best eating habit is a home cooked meal full of fibers and vegetables. We are overdoing it on the processed foods, for example that white bread burger bun and sugar-filled drinks. There are many ways to prepare and carry healthy foods — fresh fruits and vegetables, anything high in fiber, nuts, berries, and grains.
Research has confirmed the benefits of meditation, particularly in lowering blood pressure and reducing the harmful effects of stress. And studies base these beneficial effects on just 20 minutes of meditation a day. There are countless forms of meditation, some connected to religions, others stemming from practices such as yoga and qigong. Most often, meditation practice includes some form of breathing exercise, for example, observing the breath, counting breaths, or breathing in and out to a count. The important elements of the breathing component are a) slowed or deepened breathing and b) body awareness. In addition to breath work, meditation instructions generally include a relaxation element (“let your arms go limp…”), and a defocusing of the visual sense (closed eyes, or staring slightly downward with a soft un-focused gaze). Some meditation practices, especially those that are “guided” by someone else, involve visualizations, for example, “picture a peaceful lake…” or “focus on a word or concept,” or they will involve reciting a brief verse over and over (mantra). Some insurance plans will even cover meditation instruction so that you can explore methods at no expense. You can also access many instructive videos, starting with YouTube. After exploring some meditation practices, pick one, and work to give it a try, 20-minutes a day. The best meditation is one you a) feel comfortable with, and b) can commit to.
If you can find a practice that helps you work with stress, you will be much better prepared to help other EMS workers in need of stress-busting.