Recently, I talked about how trauma can impact the brain.
It spurred some great conversations with people! I really appreciate the messages sent through social media with this information! So many questions and conversations had! It was awesome!
One of the most common chats sparked by that post was around relaxation techniques.
I hear some if the responders I work with complain about a previous therapist or counselor they had met with, saying the individual was not helpful because the strategies they used were not realistic for first responders.
First off, make sure you find a therapist or counselor who actually understands the first responder lifestyle, who gets it and has experience working with it. Counselors need to be culturally competent working with first responders, and not all of them are.
When it comes to relaxation techniques, you want to find ones that are good at getting you back in control of your brain and body when in a heightened state, and can do so quickly.
Here are 4 relaxation techniques I have found to be helpful for first responders when managing stress on the job:
- Box Breathing.
- Grounding Technique.
- Make Yourself Laugh.
1. Box Breathing.
Now the box breathing technique is pretty common, but it can often be overlooked when you are in the rush between calls.
Box breathing has four steps that repeat 4-6 times.
- Step 1: Breathe in for 4 seconds.
- Step 2: Hold your breath for 4 seconds.
- Step 3: Breathe out for 4 seconds.
- Step 4: Hold for 4 seconds.
This technique tells your brain and your autonomic nervous system that you are okay and you can relax.
2. Grounding Technique.
Now, this is really important, so pay attention:
NOT ALL GROUDING TECHNIQUES WORK FOR FIRST RESPONDERS!
I will never forget when I was dealing with a rough bout of anxiety, and my counselor suggested I do grounding techniques. The suggestion she had actually made me MORE anxious! It was the 5-4-3-2-1 Method, and it freaked me out because it was too much for me to remember when I was in a heightened state of stress.
Here is my favorite grounding technique that I have found works well for first responders.
I call it the 5-on-1 Method.
Focus all 5 of your senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) on 1 thing.
I usually recommend a cup of ice cold water, a cup of hot tea, or a small snack item (like chips or crackers).
It doesn’t matter which order you do when focusing your senses, the point is to just get your senses focused on the one item in the physical world around you.
I usually go with a cup of hot tea.
Notice how it feels in your hands, warm or hot to the touch. How it feels going down your throat and into your stomach. Notice how it tastes, fruity or herbal. Notice how it looks, the color of the tea and the colors of the mug, the way the steam rises from the hot water. Notice how it smells, sharp or soft. Notice how it sounds, when you drop the tea into the water or tap your fingers on the outside of the mug.
Then take 4 deep breaths.
This may be hard to do with your turnout gear on, but you can still do some stretches.
Stretching your muscles helps to relieve tension, especially the kind caused by stress.
Roll your neck.
Bring your arm across your chest.
Reach down and touch your toes.
Do a lunge stretch.
Do a couple of side stretches.
This helps to regulate your blood flow, and you can also do some breathing regulation by breathing in and out when you stretch.
4. Make Yourself Laugh.
Personally, this one is my favorite.
Whenever I talk about how laughter can help with stress, I always find myself quoting Legally Blonde. “Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands.”
When we laugh, our body releases endorphin hormones, and actually decreases the level of stress hormones in our bodies.
Laughing also gives your body a physical release. You are exercising your diaphragm and flexing your abdomen muscles, which gives a similar response to exercising (albeit on a smaller scale, but you work with what you can while you are on your shift).
One thing I do is I have an album of photos on my phone of memes and pictures that make me laugh. When I am stressed at work, I will quickly pull up my album and start scrolling.
My husband loves to look at funny apps, like iFunny or the Chive. (We used to scroll through the Vine back in the day.) All to get laughing.
When you are in between some stressful calls on your shift, these tools are quick and easy ways to help alleviate some stress.
If you find yourself struggling with the bigger relaxation techniques (such as a healthy lifestyle or developing strong social supports), be sure to reach out for help from counselors who understand the responder lifestyle. You want to make sure your counselor can guide you in ways that are helpful with this crazy world you are serving in.
Take care, friends!