by Susanne Murtha, Yoga For First Responders Ambassador
The job of first responders is extremely demanding and requires individuals who are perceptive, discerning, adaptable and responsive. Repeated exposure to danger, trauma, death and suffering is bound to have an affect which is complicated by a culture that values stoic valor.
An eager recruit begins to serve with passion for his or her career but can end up suffering from vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, psychological disturbances and stress-related illness. The statistic that suicide is the the number one cause of death for police officers (Willis, 2014, p.1) is staggering. In addition, the incidents of abuse of substances, domestic upset, and violence by first responders suggest that all effective approaches need to be considered to reverse current trends.
Captain Dan Willis in Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responders Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart (2014, p. 15–16) identifies nine warning signs as red flags for responders that will only get worse if not corrected: isolation, irritability, insomnia, anger, emotional numbing, lack of communication, distrust of everyone, dissatisfaction with work, depression, and alcohol and/or substance abuse. Willis emphatically expresses how critical it is for first responders to learn how to nurture, protect and sustain their spirit (p. 22).
In order to do their job well first responders need a variety of tools and techniques to maintain high performance and mitigate distress. I’m going to share with you how yoga can benefit this group and some of the scientific explanations of how yoga works and is embedded in the Yoga for First Responders (YFFR) protocol.
YFFR is a non-profit organization dedicated to serve first responders with tools informed by science and the time-tested teachings of yoga. Founder Olivia Kvitne has demonstrated that yoga benefits first responders at the Los Angeles Police and Fire Departments, the Iowa Army National Guard and the Des Moines Police Academy and has now trained others to bring this program to first responders across the US and Canada. Ways that YFFR classes are different from general yoga classes are that the classes are trauma-informed and considerate of the culture of the population. The teacher uses terminology that is familiar from their academy, fitness and other training while Sanskrit words are not used. YFFR helps police, firefighters, military, and emergency personnel to manage stress with a multi-faceted approach that not only teaches self-regulation methods but also trains high performance and the ability to manage stressful situations with a positive mindset.
First responders are initiated into the police force or fire department with extensive training of their mind and of their body. (Gilmartin, 2002, p. 1). YFFR builds upon their existing training in an integrated fashion. Tactical breathing is a strategy that may be familiar to first responders and is recommended by Captain Dan Willis in Bulletproof Spirit (2014, p. 83). Tactical breathing has been demonstrated as effective during a critical event and also beneficial when working with the aftereffects of an incident (Grossman, as cited by Willis, p. 84). Controlling the breath can be used if an individual’s heart rate and sympathetic nervous system response accelerates to a level where he or she starts to loose motor skills that are needed to perform well. When the heart rate is between 115–145 beats per minutes (bpm) (Condition Red) it can be a peak time for cognitive reaction but fine motor skills are diminished which is not optimum for pilots, surgeons and others. When the heart rate is between 145–175 bpm (Condition Gray) complex motor skills deteriorate (Jedick, 2014; Masters, YFFR training, June 2016). Controlling the breath can lower the heart rate to a level to regain motor skills and shift from a narrow focus to a wider awareness in circumstances where it is beneficial. Rewrite Your Anxious Brain cites a 2004 study suggesting that diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing activates the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the nervous system that helps us return to homeostasis after a stressful incident (Bourne, Brownstein, and Garano, 2004, as cited in Pittman & Karle, 2015, p. 99). In addition, the increased movement of the diaphragm can massage and benefit the internal organs including the heart, liver and stomach (Pittman & Karle, 2015, p. 99). Yoga for First Responders classes include an emphasis on breathing deeply throughout the class that trains use of the breath as a tool during physical challenges. This allows first responders to directly influence their autonomic nervous system. They can have more control during critical incidents. After their shift is complete, breathing practices can help the nervous system return to the healthy state so they can be more engaged and present in their personal life. Kevin M. Gilmartin in Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement discusses how the Hypervigilance Recovery Period takes 18 to 24 hours for an individual to return to normal phase of perception, emotion and social interaction (2002, p. 4950).
Gilmartin recommends thirty to forty minutes of aerobic activity, four to five times a week to shorten the amount of time the nervous system needs in the down-regulated state to counteract the hypervigilance that is required of it when an officer is on duty (2002, p. 123–124). Many firemen and police officers have access to fitness equipment at work and the culture actively supports this activity. Willis has noticed that the level of exercise for many officers diminishes as their time on the job increases (2014, p. 26). YFFR classes can help with the transition into being more active and can add interest to their existing workout. The physical movement of yoga is another means for first responders to reduce the time they spend feeling tired, detached, isolated and apathetic and accelerate the shift of the nervous system back to a range within normal limits. Willis shares his experience that consistent exercise is te best strategy to counteract the cycle of hypervigilance (2014, p. 55).
The physical movement of yoga enlists the body to change the mind. To get an understanding of how it works let’s look to the science behind healing trauma. Bessel Van der Kolk, a neuroscientist and medical director of the Trauma Center at Boston University’s Medical School explains, “if you can calm down your body, you send signals up to your brain to calm your brain. We now think that about eighty percent of the fibers of that (vagus) nerve are afferent fibers that run from the body into the brain, and that means that we can do things with our bodies to calm our brain down” (Buczynski & Van der Kolk, 2014, page 11). Yoga is effective for those suffering from Acute Stress Disorder, ASD, and Post Traumatic Stress (PTS). In Bullet Proof Spirit Captain Dan Willis reports that “hundreds of thousands of current and former emergency first responders are suffering from PTSD and ASD” (2014, p. 79).
In the article, Could Yoga Hold the Key to Healing a Patient’s Trauma Ruth Buczynski puts forward the idea that the body-centered and interoceptive aspects of the yoga contributed to the reduction in PTSD in a study where yoga improved symptoms of PTSD (Buczynski, 2016). Interoception is the awareness of the signals that originate through the sense organs of the body. Some view it more broadly to include cognitive assessment that can guide decision-making and self-regulation (Farb et al., 2015, p. 1). “As the embodied self is more fully realized through awareness of ongoing interoceptive interactions, two complimentary senses emerge: presence, one’s connection to the moment and agency, one’s ability to effect change, which are both foundational in determining a person’s sense of well-being” (Seth et al., 2011 as cited in Farb et al., 2015, p. 2). Observation without judgment—is a way to change one’s perspective toward sensations instead of trying to change the sensation. It’s a body to brain (bottom-up) strategy as opposed to mind over matter (top-down) (Farb et al., 2015, p. 8). This correlates to when we are unable to change life’s stressors but need to cope with what life presents us. Many contemporary health issues involve dysregulated interoceptive processes including addiction, eating disorders, chronic pain, dissociative disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder and somatoform disorders (Farb et al., 2015, p. 11). Improving interoceptive awareness can cultivate emotional regulation and lessen the tendency to reach for substances to sooth the discomfort (Farb et al., 2015, p. 13). Development of interoception in yoga has the potential to reduce health issues among responders and to increase performance by being more aware of the information that their body is providing and more accurately assess that information. Experienced practitioners of mindfulness have demonstrated more accurate distinction of subjective and objection bodily sensation and physiological states (Sze et al, 2010 as cited in Farb et al, 2015, p. 15).
The Eastern philosophies on which yoga philosophy is based add another layer to the yoga classes. The “observation without judgment” mentioned above is one of the fundamental principles. For first responders stress cannot be eliminated and hypervigilance keeps them alive. What is essential, is to build resilience to counterbalance the challenges they face on a daily basis and diminish vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue that can accumulate over their career. By using Cognitive Declarations, a staple of the YFRR Protocol, such as “I am steady and calm” during the practice first responders learn to overwrite doubt and negative self-talk with powerful assertions. Health psychologist and author of The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It, Kelly McGonigal states that self efficacy is the most significant determinant in how individuals manage stress (2015, p. 113). If we consider Polyvagal Nerve Theory as an explanation of the effectiveness of Cognitive Declarations we realize that vocalizations relate to the somatomotor aspect of the Social Engagement system (Heilman, 2016). Activating this myelinated branch of the vagus nerve can increase a parasympathetic response of ease and wellbeing.
Specific class themes are another way that the theoretical principles of yoga can influence the mindset of first responders. For example, yoga sees all emotions as a healthy aspect of being alive. The cultural norm is for emotions to be judged as good or bad and some are seen as shameful. They can arise as attraction or aversion of what is happening during the class. Building an ability to observe, accept and hold our attention in the present experience builds a capacity to accept feelings and improves the performance and quality of life of first responders. McGonigal discusses how mindset is not only a benefit for how we perform but influences the physiological effects on the body. She describes that the threat response, often called “fight of flight”, builds stronger connections to recognize threats and sets in motion survival coping. A challenge response also activates the sympathetic and accelerator side of our nervous system, but generates resilience by releasing DHEA and nerve growth factor, and links areas of the pre-frontal cortex that increase motivation and reduce fear (McGonigal, 2015, p. 112). Yoga practice can cultivate the challenge response rather than the threat response.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, scientist and author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience discussed how yoga could be regarded as “one of the oldest and most systematic methods of producing the flow experience” (1990, p. 106). In The Rise of Superman: Decoding the Science of Ultimate Human Performance (2014) Steven Kotler delineates examples of amazing human performance and how they demonstrate the qualities of flow. The three main components that are believed to exist in a flow state are clear goals, immediate feedback and the right balance of challenge and skill (Kotler, 2014, p. 31). Many people who do yoga do not reach the state of flow but it is certainly possible that first responders can improve their performance with the practice.
In summary, Yoga for First Responders Protocol provides tools that can balance the nervous system, improve physical and mental fitness and cultivate optimal performance and resilience at a time when the challenges for first responders couldn’t be greater.
Susanne Murtha, ERYT loves to help everyday people to realize how extraordinary they really are. Teaching yoga since 1996, Susanne holds certifications in Kripalu Yoga, Integrative Yoga Therapy Professional Yoga Therapists program, Integrative Restoration (iRest®) Meditation and Breathwalk. As a graduate of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, Susanne brings knowledge of the oldest system of lifestyle medicine to her clients. Her study of yoga for trauma and anxiety has included programs with Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans, Warriors-at-Ease and Trauma-Informed Yoga Therapy. Susanne is a Wellcoaches Certified Professional Health Coach with a Bachelor’s Degree in Health Promotion. She is passionate about providing assessable tools and personalized support to increase life satisfaction and balance.
Buczynski, R. (2016). Could Yoga Hold the Key to Healing a Patient’s Trauma. Retrieved from http://www.nicabm.com/trauma-could-yoga-hold-the-key-to-healing-a-patients-trauma/
Buczynski, R. (Interviewer) & van der Kolk, B. (Interviewee). (2014). How to help patients rewire a traumatized brain—Applying the latest strategies to speed healing and reduce symptoms for even the most traumatized clients. [Interview transcript]. Retrieved from National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine. Web site: http://www.nicabm.com
Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: the psychology of optimal experience. New York, NY: Harper & Row.
Farb, N., Daubermier, J., Price, C. J., Gard, T., Kerr., C., Dunn, B. D., Klein, A. C., Paulus, M. P. & mehling, W. E. (June 9, 2015). Interoception, contemplative practice, and health. Frontiers in Psychology, 6, 1– 26. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.00763
Gilmartin, K. (2002). Emotional survival for law enforcement: A guide for officers and their families. Tucson, AZ: E-S Press.
Heilman, K. (2016). Polyvagal Theory Overview. Trauma-sensitive Yoga Therapy Training video. Retrieved from Trauma-Informed Yoga Therapy Facebook page (closed group).
Kotler, S. (2014). The rise of superman: Decoding the science of ultimate human performance. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co.
Jedick, R., A. (2014, May 20). Combat stress response & tactical breathing. Go Flight Medicine. Retrieved from http://goflightmedicine.com/on-combat/
McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you and how to get good at it. New York: Avery.
Pittman, C. M. & Karle, E. M., 2015, Rewrite your anxious brain: How to use the neuroscience of fear to end anxiety, panic & worry. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Willis, D. (2014). Bulletproof spirit: The first responders essential resource for protecting and healing mind and heart. Novato, CA: New World Library.