A New Skill for Firefighters: Training the Thoughts

In Uncategorized by YFFR Ambassador

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and I’m sitting at the station passing the time by chatting with my co-workers when the tones go out for my ambulance to respond to a “man down” on the sidewalk. A passerby has stated that he’s breathing, but unknown status otherwise. The location of the call is frequented by paramedics due to the dense population of homeless citizens that congregate in this area.305172_2012795849728_932440965_n

As I get up from the table and head towards the pole to slide down to the rig, I notice the reactions in my head to the stimulus of the call. All of a sudden my past experiences with these “routine” calls overwhelm me and I start suspecting the nature of the call and anticipating the outcome. My partner and I start out of the station responding to the incident. Along the way, as our bodies and minds naturally start preparing for what could possibly be awaiting us, some of these thoughts start to arise: “Oh, it’s ‘so and so’ again that fell asleep in public and a passing cell phone hero called 911 to get someone to check on him”; “This guy is going to be pissed and not want anything to do with us just like he has in the past”; “Pretty sure the other paramedics picked him up earlier today, and yesterday, and the day before that”, or “He’s probably just drunk”.

Do you see the commonality in those statements? They are rooted from a place of ego, judgement and laziness, which is the exact opposite of the job that first responders signed up and pledged for: A willingness to respond and rescue or give care to those in need regardless of their situation, the time of day or the frequency of the incident. Yet, thoughts like these become more prevalent with continued years on the job leading to unavoidable compassion fatigue.

If we continue down this dangerous path of unwillingness to look inward and create the space required to recognize our reactions and change our responses, we will drive the wedge deeper between ourselves as responders or caregivers and our patients or citizens in which we give care. This can lead to avoidable mistakes, injuries, and unhappiness with the job we once loved.

The only way to change this is to observe our reactions with a willingness to simply “be”with what is. Then, when we are settled in a place of calmness, we can make a mindful decision to change our thought. I believe that this mindfulness practice is needed now more than ever in a world surrounded by fear, anger and aggression. Our responders must take care of themselves in order to stay calm in the midst of chaos and to genuinely care for other human beings.

First responders know we must take care of ourselves in order to take care of others, but many are unwilling to do what it takes or simply don’t know how. Self-care means taking responsibility for ourselves and our actions. In order for this to happen we must first open our eyes to our own habits and reactions to the stimuli in our own lives.img_0637

When I teach and practice yoga and mindfulness this is the goal: To build the courage to be present in moments of discomfort, chaos and fear. Yes, there are fears that come from dangers we need to run from such as a bear chasing us! Thank goodness for the instinct to run from the things that challenge our well being because without this evolutionary adaptation none of us would be on the planet. However, the problem is that our body has developed the same response to emotional and traumatic experiences as it has to natural threats.

Once the body stores the traumatic experience in the tissues of the body, when we become triggered again by something that may or may not be life-threatening, our nervous system will not be able to detect the difference between the two events and will react the same way: activating the “fight or flight” Sympathetic Nervous System response.

If one can learn to be present and aware when the heart rate increases, the skin becomes clammy and the thoughts start running through one’s head, the potential arises to increase the space between the stimulus and the response. This, in turn, creates the ability to regain power and choose a mindful response instead of a conditioned, emotional reaction, that may not be appropriate to the stimulus at hand. This proper response may still be to get out of the situation as soon as possible, but the goal is to listen to your gut and to choose your response mindfully.

As mindfulness pioneer and author, Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “Thoughts are only bubbles waiting to be popped. Without your attachment to them, they are nothing”. This, I believe is the core to mindfulness training. This is the root of what I wish to share and empower the first responder community with by engaging them in practical and safe exercises to access their power of choice instead of conditioned emotional impulse.

Yoga is a popular mindfulness technique, but yoga postures are not only what you practice on the mat. Yoga and mindfulness are practiced as a gateway to notice your reactions to challenges on the mat, and therefore giving the opportunity to rewire your nervous system so that you can choose to respond mindfully in the “postures” of your life.

img_0547Everyone’s life is different and we all have “triggers”. Whether these be responding to a 911 call, having a frustrating conversation with your spouse or child, watching a disaster unfold (on tv or in person), or noticing the urge to abuse alcohol,drugs, or any other form of coping mechanisms. Our life is full of “postures”. Above, I’ve listed some examples of the more challenging life “postures”, but some also can come easily and can be fun and allow you to feed your soul, just like on the yoga mat. This could mean relaxing on the beach, singing and dancing to your favorite tune, watching your child walk for the first time, and seeing people you know and love vow to spend the rest of their lives together in marriage.. The list goes on and on for both postures of ease and postures that offer challenge. Yoga postures, taught safely and appropriately, allow you to grow the space between stimulus and response in the challenging postures so that you can do the same in the challenges of life. “We cannot control what happens on the outside, but we can always control what happens on the inside”, says Jon Kabat Zinn.

Recently, I had the opportunity to re-read Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga, Reclaiming Your Body by Emerson and Hopper. This is a guidebook for yoga teachers and trauma survivors alike to venture into overcoming fear through empowerment. One of the most powerful messages I read is that trauma survivors begin to disassociate from their bodies after trauma because they subconsciously link their bodies to the trauma experience itself and they identify their body as the vehicle to the pain felt because of the trauma. It is imperative that a yoga teacher is properly trained in a safe and appropriate approach in order to hold space for the student’s growth and transformative experience of reclaiming his or her body. Emerson and and Hopper describe this by saying, “Anything that takes away from the students empowerment in the class is at best unhelpful and at worst, destructive.”

You don’t have to be a first responder for these methods to be effective. It’s vital that we all begin to look inward to notice the truth of what is happening around us. Through practicing safe and effective yoga where we can choose to remain present with our breath in a challenging moment, we can accomplish the same during life’s challenging moments and find our freedom: freedom from imprisoning thoughts and freedom to choose an intelligent and appropriate response to what might be frustrating or difficult.

As we begin this journey through our own yoga practice we can lead by example and others will absorb the benefits, as well. In this way, we assist each other as we all navigate through our lives the best way we know how.

Life, yoga, and mindfulness are all just practices. We are not perfect and we are going to make mistakes. Forgive yourself, again and again and again. Be kind to yourself and others as we venture into the unknown of your life and the unknown of the next call.

Bobbi Jo Weeks is a Paramedic and Firefighter at Portland Fire Department and Yoga For First Responders Ambassador.