When you hear the talk about how there is a big mental health crisis in the First Responder world do you think to yourself, “oh yes, that’s definitely me? “ OR do you think, “ I know of some that this affects, but they aren’t talking about me.”?
Mental stress is a big factor in your job as a Police Officer and First Responder. There is absolutely no denying that.
What if, for many First Responders, the issue is not a mental health issue, but your body’s stress management system is overloaded, screaming for help?
A Cry for Help
Yes, Your sleep sucks, you’re exhausted and have a short fuse. You stomach doesn’t work or look like it used to and your body feels older than it should, even though you have tried your best to live healthy when circumstances allow.
And yes, the job is taking a toll on you, but deep down in your gut you know that this is not happening to you because of your mental health.
You know that there is something going on in your body that is causing all of your symptoms and healthy lifestyle changes, doctors and prescriptions are not working.
And if you knew what it was, being the person who takes action when there is a problem to solve it, you would do what you had to, to fix it.
Am I right?
If so, then you are just like me when I was struggling.
As soon as I realized what was causing my brain fog, absolute exhaustion, lack of motivation and inability to push in my workouts that eventually turned into full burnout, I felt that fire deep inside to do whatever I needed to find out why the healthy lifestyle changes I was implementing were not helping and what I needed to do to get back to my energetic, athletic, happy self.
Here is what I discovered in a nutshell.
1. There is only so much stress our body’s stress management system can handle
Our Adrenals (size of a grape, shape of a walnut and sit on top of our kidneys- the reason some people feel pain in their low back when stressed), Pituitary gland( a small gland the size of a pea in our brains) and our Hypothalamus (the frontal part of our brain) together manage our stress management system.
This is called the HPA Axis.
Because our HPA Axis has not evolved since our existence it can not distinguish between different levels of stress.
When your brain perceives that there is a stress, regardless of the severity, it sends the same signal to the adrenals and pituitary glands to produce the hormones needed to kick in your fight or flight system.
They release stress hormones to give you a surge of energy and strength and glucose/insulin hormones to release sugars so that you have fuel to fight or flee. Once the stress is over your body then needs to clean up the glucose and stress hormones floating around.
As mentioned when your brain perceives that there is a stress this reaction occurs… running late, spilling your coffee, putting on your uniform, not getting to eat because you are on a call, exposure to environmental toxins, OT, Long work hours, working out, rushing to a 911 call (even if it’s cleared by the time you get there), looking at your phone and devices that do not have a blue light blocker on them, mental traumas…and the list goes on…
All perceived stresses, mental and physical create this same response in your body.
They all add up.
It’s a vicious cycle and one that takes a toll on our bodies over time.
So your brain decides it needs to do something and starts to decrease the signals it sends to the adrenals and pituitary glands.
Over time your HPA Axis releases less and less hormones.
Because it not only manages your stress hormones, but 50 hormone responses in total, many others are also affected. And eventually the signs of Burnout start to creep in.
- Tired and Wired
- Waking Mid Sleep
- Brain Fog
- Short Fuse/Frustration/Anger
- Digestive Issues
- Colds/Flues/Nagging Injuries
2. Nerves in our body’s also play a part in how our bodies respond to stress.
Nerves send signals to our muscles and organs to do a specific job. For example they signal your biceps when to contract and when to relax.
We have a set of nerves that turn on everything you need when you are in a stressed state, and another set to turn on everything you need when in a rest and digest state.
Today we are going to focus on the Vagus nerve which runs throughout your body. This is your rest and digest nerve.
As you know, when you have not worked out for a while your muscles decrease in strength and reaction time. This is the same for your nerves. When you do not use them they get lazy and tire out easier.
I would relate this to the guy at the gym that only does mirror exercises. You know, chest, biceps, shoulders, abs. He’s always flexing in the mirror, showing off, not realizing that everyone else is not looking at the mirror and can see his scrawny legs.
When you are in a stressed state the majority of the time your sympathetic nerve which is in charge of our body’s stress signals is the one doing all of the work. It’s strength and reactive times are improving each and every day like the guys mirror muscles.
While your vagus nerve is hanging out, chilling in the background. It is losing its strength and reactivity like the guys scrawny legs.
An underactive vagus nerve can lead to:
- Dysfunctional breathing
- Dysfunctional digestion Chronic Inflammation and Immune Activation
- Dysfunctional Heart Rate
- Inability to handle stressors
- Dysfunctional Sleep and Circadian Rhythms
3. Healthy eating and Exercise are not the lifestyle changes we need to focus on at first to support our stress management system.
As you can see when your HPA Axis and Vagus nerve is struggling your digestive system also struggles to break down and absorb even the healthiest meal.
Gym workouts stimulate the release of even more stress and glucose hormones and give the sympathetic nervous system even more of a work out.
Which explains why many First Responders who have healthy lifestyle habits, like my husband and myself, end up with sleep struggles, exhaustion, digestive issues, short fuse and more..
Every stress trigger places a toll on your body’s stress management system.
Mental health is only one of these triggers.
There are many First Responders who do not feel that they have a mental health issue.
If this is the case for you, then your body may be giving you signals that shift work and life on the job requires a different approach in order to support your stress management system so you can get back to your happy athletic life and become that Elite First Responder you know you can be, where you sleep regardless of the shift, wake with energy, are calm, cool and collected (even at home), peak during a crisis, recover quickly after and have energy left for your family and athletics.
Change the way you look at your job as a First Responder from a stress management perspective. Start looking at things from a proactive view instead of reactive.
Consider all 5 stress triggers and how each one specifically relates to you on the job. (Not a Mon- Fri 9-5 less stressed career)
- Environmental Toxins
Take all of the stresses out that you can control.
Support your HPA Axis
Strengthen your vagus nerve
And you are on your way to becoming an Elite First Responder who thrives in their career.
I know I make it sound easy. Trust me I have been in your shoes and it’s not.
In reality this took me 20 + years of struggling through 2 burnout crashes, learning I have 2 genetic variants that cause my body to function at a higher stressed state all the time (similar to life of a First Responder).
I was born to push the limits each and every day. Just like you.
My body was not going to surrender just because I live in a higher stressed state and yours does not have to either.
So I figured it out and came out the other side even stronger mentally and physically than I was before my burnout, I am in better shape than when I was competing in sports pre kids and burnout.
The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.
Andi Clark is a mom, wife of a Police Officer and the founder of 911 Lifestyle. Also known as The Elite Trainer for Police and First Responders, Andi is an expert in peak performance and how stress physically affects your body.
The one that’s listed in the blog doc is:
Andi Clark is a mom, wife of a Police Officer and the founder of 911 Lifestyle.
Andi has a background in athletics including a 25+yr career as a personal trainer, nutrition and mindset coach to athletes and stressed out high end executives.
Being healthy and active was what she lived for. Until her body started waking absolutely exhausted, workouts become something to push through instead of enjoy. A short fuse crept in, motivation left and injuries seemed to be a part of life. All of this added up to the point that she had to stop all activity altogether.
Doctors, specialists and prescriptions were never able to fix the problem.
Once Andi realized she had a genetic stress condition that puts her body into an increased stress response state all the time (similar to what Police Officers and First Responders experience when they put on their uniform and have to mentally prepare for whatever may happen in their day) was she able to figure out what was happening and how to reverse it.
Through years of research and studying, Andi formulated a completely different way to thrive when your body is always functioning at higher than usual stress levels. One where it is possible to reverse and prevent an officer from getting to a point where they struggle to get through their days by taking a preventative approach instead of a reactive one. And one that reduces the negative effects of shift work on the body.
Through her husbands career as an officer her focus has been on preventing burnout, exhaustion and a tanked immune system that she knew can result from high levels of stress that are out of your control.
As she watched his co-workers struggle with everything from sleep, exhaustion and anger leading to divorce, PTSD and even suicide it became apparent how LIFE-SAVING the foundations she was laying down for her husband actually were, because not only was he tolerating the shiftwork lifestyle, he was thriving in it.
Andi created 911 Lifestyle once she realized the strategies her husband was using MUST become available to all Police Officers and First Responders so they can peak during crisis, recover quickly after, have energy left over for their families and become the Elite First Responders that they were born to be.