Stress, Trauma and Yoga for First Responders
Stress, Trauma and Yoga for First Responders

Have you ever been told to “take life by the horns?” Here is your sign to refocus your awareness and help you regain control. By “taking life by the horns,” a first responder can prevent most physical pain and prevent relying on painkillers and experiencing feelings of hopelessness.

A first responder avoiding or ignoring signs of stress and everyday trauma can worsen symptoms of anxiety, depression, and many other emotional stressors. Moreover, neglecting this awareness can cause first responders to carry these unhealthy habits home after shifts. The impact of stress and trauma causes “issues in the tissues” and impacts the mind and body. Thanks to yoga, regular breathwork, and meditation it has been shown to increase one’s range of motion, promote a balanced nervous system, alleviate depressive and anxious symptoms, more effectively process stress out of the tissues, is a tool for mindfulness and much more.

There are different techniques and approaches for achieving the emotional and physical goals associated with yoga. The first version is Restorative or Yin Yoga, and the second is Self-Myofascial Release. Techniques from each approach may be used together or separately within a yoga class or as its own class. For this article, the focus will be on Self -Myofascial Release, referencing Jill Miller’s book “The Roll Model” and “The Body Keeps the Score” by Bessel Van Der Kolk, M. D. Trauma affects the brain and the body and yoga (breath (pranayama), stretches or postures (asanas), and meditation/mindfulness help individuals listen to what their body has to say and assists in learning to listen.

This article will focus on Yin tissues as the ligaments, bones, joints, and fascia. This is compared to a first responder wearing body armor or personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect them. These tissues, called connective tissue, respond well to gentle movement. The fascia governs the range of motion in a muscle, with thirty percent of our muscles actually fascia. The functions of fascia support bodily structures and nerve sensory endings for communication with the brain. [Remember: Myo means muscle, and Fascial means band.]{:target=”blank”} Dense, loose, or fluid connective tissues surrounding, covering, or binding together tissues and/or bodily structures. Fascia becomes painful or stiff due to physical limitations, repetitive stress, or trauma (physical or mental). Some examples of fascia pain can be experienced in the feet and calves from wearing boots; lower back, upper back, glutes, hips, and hamstrings from wearing a vest or fire coat, belt, and oxygen tank; arms, wrists, and neck from the helmet, respectively.

There are many sensory nerve endings in the body that help us “feel” things. Mechanoreceptors are nerve endings that relay specific touch and pressure-sensing information to the central nervous system (CNS), versus nociceptors, sensory nerve endings that relay pain perception to the brain. There are five types of mechanoreceptors: 1. Muscle spindles reduce muscle bracing and help the myofascial lengthening when relaxing these sensors. 2. When these sensors are relaxed, Golgi tendon organs reduce tendon tension at joint junctions and tougher soft-tissue seams. 3. When massaging these sensors, Pacinian corpuscles reduce local tension and improve proprioception. 4. Ruffini endings reduce whole-body tension by tamping down the sympathetic outflow, sedating the entire nervous system, and improving proprioception when these sensors are massaged. 5. When massaging this complex set of nerve fibers, Interstitial Fibers might generate competing sensations of pleasure and discomfort.

When massaging various muscles, rolling balls have the added benefits of lengthening and massaging sensory nerves. These are aligned with mind-body goals: Rolling improves performance, relieves stress, and increases emotional resiliency. Moreover, there is a sequence of acupressure points on various parts of the body that the use of the balls can apply pressure. Memory of helplessness is stored as muscle tension or feelings of disintegration, which affects body areas such as the head, back, and limbs. Drugs and/or alcohol are one way of dulling an intolerable inner world, but other ways can be obesity, anorexia, addiction to exercise, or work. Sensation seeking is the flip side of numbing by trying high-risk activities or cutting themselves to give them a false feeling of control. Constant muscle tension caused by chronic anger or fear leads to spasms, back pain, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, and other forms of chronic pain.

Our brain’s most elementary survival system is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). There are two branches that regulate arousal throughout the body. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) uses chemicals like adrenaline to fuel the body and brain to take action (fight, flight, freeze). The parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) uses acetylcholine to help regulate basic body functions like digestion, wound healing, and sleep and dream cycles (rest and digest). When these two work closely together, it helps keep us in an optimate state of engagement with ourselves and our environment. When the ANS is well balanced, we have a reasonable degree of control over our responses to handle frustrations and disappointments and help control our impulses and emotions. Individuals are easily thrown off mental and physical balance if the ANS is not balanced. It shows negative effects on thinking and feeling but also how the body responds to stress, all caused by a lack of fluctuation in heart rate in response to breathing. Physical illnesses, such as heart disease and cancer, are more vulnerable, and mental problems, such as depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The use of inhalations stimulates the SNS, which results in an increase in heart rate. Exhalations stimulate the PNS, which decreases how fast the heart beats. Both produce steady, rhythmical fluctuations in heart rate, which equals basic well-being. Changing the way one breathes can improve problems with anger, depression, and anxiety, and yoga can positively affect wide-ranging medical problems such as high blood pressure, elevated stress hormone secretion, asthma, and low-back pain.

Yoga improves one’s relationships with the body, using cognitive declarations such as “I now take care of my body”; “I listen to what my body needs.” Yoga can change the heart rate to help people with trauma learn to live comfortably. Remember, getting the poses “right” is not the emphasis but on helping the individuals to notice which muscles are active at different times. Yoga sequences create a rhythm between tension and relaxation, and hope that this awareness is taken “off the mat” and into daily life. Mindfulness encourages observing what is happening in different body parts from pose to pose. So many individuals refuse to listen to their body, which is an important part of who we are. During a yoga practice, we allow the body to tell the story it wants to tell, which brings pain and sadness. If one is open to it and doesn’t fight oneself, the part of one’s true self opens, and there is no longer a need to deny the past. Our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies. Unless we can feel and interpret our physical sensations, we cannot register and act on those sensations safely through life. We pay the price of not being aware of what is happening inside the body and cannot be fully, sensually alive. Yoga is a terrific way to gain a relationship with the interior world and, with it, a caring, loving, sensual relationship with self. Everything shifts once you start approaching your body with curiosity rather than fear.

By, Ruth Romo