PERFECT BALANCE

On any given day, a firefighter, paramedic or police officer can see more violence and trauma than the average civilian may encounter in their entire lifetime.

The result of which, research suggests, may lead to damaging psychological effects. This is something we don't always consider when we see our friends and family who serve in these jobs.

Moreover, there is a large contingent of volunteers who serve our communities in these roles. Many people sign up to make a difference and serve their communities and then find out that being a first responder can be stressful.

Boston firefighter recruit May Ho takes part in a Vinyasa Flow yoga class during training at the Boston Fire Academy in the United States earlier this year. Photo/Getty Images
Boston firefighter recruit May Ho takes part in a Vinyasa Flow yoga class during training at the Boston Fire Academy in the United States earlier this year. Photo/Getty Images

Compassion fatigue often arises through prolonged exposure to environmental stressors. Vicarious traumatisation (the cumulative negative effect which occurs through consistent exposure to the trauma of others) has also been noted as a consequence of work-related trauma symptoms of which, Police Chief Magazine states may lead to: "changes in identity, value systems and worldviews, beliefs about self and others, trust, interpersonal relationships, intimacy, tolerance, and sense of control."

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Furthermore, according to the National Fallen Firefighters Association, "suicide is four times more likely to happen in a fire department than a line-of-duty death."

According to research in the US, 25 to 30 per cent of police officers experience stress-related health concerns, and an estimated 18 per cent of police officers and up to 37 per cent of firefighters experience PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

Moreover, first responder work was rated the most stressful job in the US in 2015. As we think of recent events in Christchurch, you can't get a more powerful experience about the stress that first responders can face.

Repeated exposure to danger, trauma, death, and suffering is bound to have an affect which is complicated by a culture that values stoic valour.

According to research by Kevin Gilmartin, first responders can remain in the Hypervigilance Recovery Period for 18 to 24 hours before they return to normal phase of perception, emotion, and social interaction.

Yet in this period, first responders could have responded to several other stressful incidents creating a backlog in the recovery period. This is where things can build up over time and leave first responders with a heavy weight to bear.

This is something, as a nation, we need to face as we become more aware of mental health and removing the stigma of talking about mental well-being. 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 daily and diminish vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue that can accumulate over their career.

So, how does yoga help first responders?

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Yoga focuses on deep breathing which according to research can allow, "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."

Yoga practice also calms the body down, and according to leading Trauma specialist, Bessel Van der Kolk, "if you can calm down your body, you send signals up to your brain to calm your brain. We now think that about 80 per cent of the fibres of that (vagus) nerve are afferent fibres that run from the body into the brain, and that means that we can do things with our bodies to calm our brain down".

Yoga postures create stronger mind/body connections so first responders can calm down from their shifts and return to a state of equilibrium. Many first responders will finish their shift and hop right back into regular life; this transition can sometimes be challenging.

By adding a regular yoga practice, you can gain knowledge about how breathing and the body can help relax the brain. There are many different yoga styles and practices that first-responders can do to feel these effects.

You could try yoga classes at a local studio, mindfulness/meditation practices you find online or through apps like Headspace or Calm.

If going to a yoga studio seems like a daunting idea, you can practice online with YouTube, or any other online yoga website.

We need to get over and beyond the stigma of yoga, and the misunderstandings that have been created by "silly" stereotypes that have been used in the media, in films, and television.

Yoga is an effective tool to help first responders, whether paid or volunteer, to deal with the stresses of their work so that they can continue to serve our communities while maintaining their health and well-being.

Yoga goes beyond just "stretching" and will help you find resiliency, strength, and balance so that when lives are on the line, you can perform at your best.

■ Tim Seutter is a firefighter, yoga teacher and manager at The Loft Yoga and Pilates Studio, Whangārei.