By: Ryan Swobody
“Fight or Flight!”… This is typically what we, as EMS providers, think of when referencing the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. We were taught through EMT/Paramedic school about how our body reacts in these two different states. This knowledge is incredibly important when treating a patient in the field and delivering them safely to the emergency department. We can also look at these systems in a more personal way. Having a very basic understanding of how our nervous system works, we can leverage its functions and set ourselves up for a long, healthy career.
Culturally, as well as professionally, we live an incredibly up-regulated lifestyle. As a society, we are chronically busy and stressed. Then, we layer this career on top of that. Long hours, increasing call volumes, reduced resources, emergency environments, lack of sleep and mental/emotional trauma keep us chronically “On.” In this state, we are biasing our sympathetic nervous system. This is the system designed to prepare us to “Fight!” Our heartrate goes up, we start moving faster, our focus becomes narrowed…. We feel amped! This is useful when we are preparing to go to work at a structure fire, cut a victim out of a car or anytime we enter a life-threatening atmosphere. A sympathetic response is quick and easy to access. It happens in an instant and is difficult and time consuming to come back down from. The problem here, is that we are not designed to be in this state for a prolonged or chronic timeframe. This is designed to be an acute response to an acute situation. This is not to say that we shouldn’t train for these situations, we just need to be aware that living in this state is detrimental to our health and leads to a host of physical and mental ailments.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have the parasympathetic nervous system. This is our down-regulated, relaxed state. A parasympathetic state is the only time that we can recover, regenerate and restore our bodies systems. This is our body searching for homeostasis. Accessing our parasympathetic system is a much slower process and takes a level of focus to initiate and maintain. Sleep, meditation, proper nutrition, quality relationships, light physical activity and developing a positive mental space are the building blocks of a restorative state.
Due to our inherently up-regulated occupation and lifestyle, we must put more of a focus on restorative practices. In order to achieve homeostatic balance, we need to take an introspective, individualized approach. Consider your unique lifestyle and how you can adopt some restorative practices to access your parasympathetic system. When you get back to the station after a run or back home after shift, put a focus on restorative practices. After you have identified a few things that help to bring you back down and feel more centered, practice maintaining that state and developing some endurance in that down-regulated state. Harnessing this ability will lead to improved mental & physical health, decreased stress, improved decision making, stronger focus, ability to cope and healthier relationships. It is easier to refine and control your actions during times of up-regulated scenarios (sympathetic) by developing a more down-regulated lifestyle.
With the current societal climate and the inherent stresses of our occupation, we are already behind the eight-ball. We are at work nearly 1/3 of our lives. Attempting to maintain a sympathetic state over a duration of 20-30 years is a recipe for disaster. If you do not address this imbalance now, you will have to address your broken systems in the future. Take a proactive approach and put a focus on restoration and down-regulation now to avoid excess stress and medical bills in the future.
Beyond the Gear is a informational place where firefighters and their families can read and take steps at living a healthier life. Healthy body starts with a healthy mind. I hope you enjoy.