First responders, not reactors

By Robyn Tiger

Dial 911! You or a loved one is in need of emergent care. There is a life-threatening situation. Within minutes, trained “first responders” are there to assist. These individuals are the first to the scene, the first to evaluate, the first to diagnose, and the first to act. Who makes up this courageous group? Firefighters, police officers, paramedics, and emergency medical technicians.

The case for mind-body health

First responders have incredibly demanding jobs. They are on high alert for extended periods, awaiting the call to assist in dangerous and challenging situations. Their work requires a strong sense of grounding, maintaining the utmost focus and concentration while providing both physical and emotional support to those in need.

Unfortunately, these heroic yet highly stressful professions can be extremely damaging to both the physical and psychological health of first responders. Chronic stress results in, among other conditions, high blood pressure, which damages the lining of the coronary arteries, elevates cholesterol and leads to plaque formation blocking adequate blood flow to the heart.

Thirty percent of first responders develop behavioral health issues such as depression and PTSD, higher than the general population rate of 20%; they also have a higher risk of suicidal thoughts and death by suicide, as we tragically saw during the second month of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. The most frequent cause of on-duty death in firefighters isn’t smoke inhalation or burns. Instead, 45% of on-duty firefighter deaths are caused by heart disease, mostly secondary to coronary artery disease (blockage of the arteries of the heart); 22% of on-duty police officer deaths are due to heart disease. For reference, 14% of deaths in the general population occur following a cardiac event.

Military veterans, with a deep passion to serve, make up a large percentage of the first-responder population. Both roles require discipline, presence, steadiness, and physical strength and come with a sense of responsibility and camaraderie. It is therefore natural for active-duty military personnel to transition into first-responder professions.

Similar to first responders, a large proportion of military veterans suffer from damaging physical and psychological illnesses with a significant stress component. Approximately 20% struggle with PTSD, many experience anxiety and depression and several die by suicide daily. These two jobs combined are doubly damaging to the health of the individuals involved. (Read more here and here.)

Now the good news…

Knowledge is power. As first responders are being educated on the harmful effects of chronic stress, they are embracing self-care education through trauma-informed yoga therapy and meditation practices. In my experience, the positive effects of these practices on their overall well-being leads these professionals to make wise choices by incorporating yogic tools into their daily lives; the yoga therapy becomes lifestyle medicine.

I have the privilege of leading trauma-informed yoga therapy and meditation sessions in multidisciplinary first-responder workshops. These sessions were created by O2X, an innovative organization founded by Navy SEAL veterans. They understand firsthand the profoundly healing benefits of these mind-body practices. A 3-year analysis of the O2X program, which trained nearly 900 Boston firefighters, revealed an increase in their overall resilience. During that time, the city of Boston saved more than $6 million by reducing injuries, paid time off, and sick calls.

Trauma-informed yoga therapy and meditation tools teach us how to calmly, thoughtfully, and clearly respond to whatever arises—instead of quickly, thoughtlessly, and emotionally reacting in a way that could be hurtful to others and ourselves. This ultimately leads to more fulfilling, healthy, and happy lives.

Robyn Tiger, MD, C-IAYT, RYT-500, founded Yoga Heals 4 Life, which serves those touched by trauma, anxiety, stress-related disorders, and cancer. She integrates Western and Eastern philosophies for complete physical, mental, and emotional well-being.