Did you know that when First Responders are under long periods of stress symptoms such as sleep issues including sleep apnea, digestive/gut issues, heart rate problems, high blood pressure, dysfunctional sleep, lack of social interaction, liver issues, chronic inflammation > nagging injuries, constant colds flus and eventually autoimmune disease and more start to creep in over time.
As a First Responder you spend a lot of time with your stress response system kicked in ready for whatever comes your way.
Have you ever thought about how being in a stressed state for long periods of time affects your nerves?
Your nerves are similar to your muscles.
When you go to the gym and lift heavy weights your biceps get stronger. That is if you give them enough recovery time in between to heal the muscle fibres before crushing them again. Every work out the muscle fibres react faster and engage more muscle fibres adding to your speed and strength.
What happens when you stop lifting those heavy weights consistently in the gym?
Your biceps strength and reaction time decreases, causing them to become weaker and slower, and eventually if they are barely used, you figure out other ways of doing things and stop using your biceps as much.
This is the same for your nerves.
Your Fight Or Flight and Rest And Digest Nerves
There are two nerves that run through your entire body from your brain, to your organs, to the tips of your fingers and toes that control all of the body functions you require to turn on and off your stress response systems.
- Sympathetic Nerve
- Vagus Nerve
When your stress response kicks in, The sympathetic nerve turns on all of the body systems that you need to fight the fight.
- Glucose (sugar) is rushed into your body to give you energy
- Stress hormones are released – cortisol, adrenaline, epinephrine
- Your breathing speeds up to give your brain more oxygen
- Blood is taken away from your digestive system and all other organs towards your arms and legs
- Heart Rate Increases
- Brain moves from big picture thinking to the here and now, laser focused on the here and now
The vagus nerve turns on the systems you need when you are not in a stressed state. We call this your rest and digest state.
Why does this matter?
As mentioned when your muscles are not used they decrease in strength and reaction time.
The same goes for your nerves.
So if you are working out your stress response system- sympathetic nerve- the majority of the time, your vagus nerve starts to become slower to respond and weaker in it’s response when it does.
This can result in:
Your airway not working when it should when you are sleeping, causing you to breathe through your mouth. This often results in snoring and sleep apnea at night and can even cause your voice to become more monotone.
Your stress breathing takes over, not allowing you to take controlled, deep breaths.
Heart Rate and blood pressure struggle to stay within healthy norms.
Your liver struggles do to the 500 jobs that it needs to do in order to to keep you body safe allowing toxins to roam free in your body an attack your cells causing inflammation all the way up to autoimmune and other diseases.
Your gallbladder stops emptying as often as it should
It becomes a struggle to control your hunger and you never seem to feel full
This can cause some major health issues
It is also possible that you have too much blood sugar floating around which over time causes your body to decrease its production causing you to wake mid sleep. If left for too long the possibility of diabetes becomes a reality.
Your gut is often called your second brain. The bacteria and nutrients all cause reactions in your body. When you are in a stressed state your digestive system slows down. Over time you develop gut issues… some gas and indigestion, constantly in the bathroom, or days without going, avoiding certain foods because of the payback or worse – leaky gut, chrones, colitis, SIBO and more…
Your immune system starts to tank resulting in more colds, flus, allergies and nagging injuries at first, but can eventually lead to autoimmune, cancer and other diseases.
When you are in a fight or flight state you are unable to think of the big picture. You are only using the part of your brain for the here and now. So creating strategies, writing reports after a crisis and remembering things decreases when your vagus nerve is not able to kick in this part of your brain.
And interestingly, you start to withdraw from social events and become more isolated.
As you can see, your vagus nerve is very important.
Training it so that your sympathetic nervous system is not always taking over leaving your vagus nerve in the dust is very important.
How do we train your vagus nerve?
That’s a great question. There are many ways of which I teach in my 911 Elite Performance Program, but for today I am going to focus on the main player.
I have been a personal trainer for 25 years and only after I burnt out, crashed twice and was diagnosed with a genetic condition did I ever consider trying to sit and breathe. I function at a higher stressed state and have learned from scientific studies how breathing trains our vagus nerve and gets us out of fight or flight mode.
Before then I thought meditation was woo hoo
It’s not. In fact, it is one of the base foundations that I have everyone who starts my program learn from the start because it is the easiest ways to train your vagus nerve to become stronger and react faster.
How To Activate Your Vagus Nerve By Breathing
The vagus nerve runs along the left side of your nose. When you breathe through your left nostril you activate it and when you take deep breaths into your belly you also stimulate nerve endings of the vagus nerve. So you can activate it on many different stages of your breath.
- Right now take a very slow, deep breathe in through your nose.
- SLOWLY breathe out through your nose.
Your Goal is to breathe in for 7 seconds in and out with a 5 second pause in between. You may need to start by breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth and work to fully nose. Go at your own pace.
The next important thing is you want your breath to go into your belly.
- Place one hand on your belly and the other on your chest.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose and note which hand moved
If only the hand that was on your belly moved, great. If not, here are a few things to try to get it into your belly.
- Focus on pushing your hand out that is on your belly with all of your breath that comes in and then pull your belly in away from your hand as you breathe out
- Close your right nostril and breathe in and out only from your left nostril. Keep your other hand on your belly to see your hand moves more now.
This may take you time to get the hang of if your vagus nerve has not been in charge of your breathing for a while.
Training Takes Time
Keep in mind that training your nerves is similar to training your muscles. They need time and consistency. When your biceps are really weak, it takes you longer to lift a 35lb db, than someone who was already active before joining the gym and starting to work them. Working your vagus nerve is very similar.
If your Vagus nerve has been neglected for a long time, be patient and consistent and the benefits will start to pay off.
If you are struggling to remember to belly breathe through your nose tell yourself that every time you walk through a door frame you are going to breathe, or every time you drive to a 911 call you will breathe, before you knock on someone’s door for a call, as soon as you wake up and the last thing you do before you go to sleep…
All of these will add up and you will find that you will be able to think clearer, remain calm and focus on the big picture instead of only the here and now.
If you would like to learn more about my 911 Elite Performance program and other techniques to turn on your vagus nerve and decrease your stress to improve your sleep issues, digestion, energy, short fuse, stamina and recovery time then book a 911 Performance Assessment.
On the 911 Performance Assessment we will talk about what you are personally experiencing, what you have tried that has worked, what hasn’t and together we will create a strategy to figure out what steps need to happen to get you from surviving as a First Responder, to thriving.
The advice provided in this article is for informational purposes only. It is meant to augment and not replace consultation with a licensed health care provider. Consultation with a Naturopathic Doctor or other primary care provider is recommended for anyone suffering from a health problem.
Andi Clark is a mom, wife of a Police Officer and the founder of 911 Lifestyle.
Andi has a background in athletics including a 25+yr career as a personal trainer, nutrition and mindset coach to athletes and stressed out high end executives.
Being healthy and active was what she lived for. Until her body started waking absolutely exhausted, workouts become something to push through instead of enjoy. A short fuse crept in, motivation left and injuries seemed to be a part of life. All of this added up to the point that she had to stop all activity altogether.
Doctors, specialists and prescriptions were never able to fix the problem.
Once Andi realized she had a genetic stress condition that puts her body into an increased stress response state all the time (similar to what Police Officers and First Responders experience when they put on their uniform and have to mentally prepare for whatever may happen in their day) was she able to figure out what was happening and how to reverse it.
Through years of research and studying, Andi formulated a completely different way to thrive when your body is always functioning at higher than usual stress levels. One where it is possible to reverse and prevent an officer from getting to a point where they struggle to get through their days by taking a preventative approach instead of a reactive one. And one that reduces the negative effects of shift work on the body.
Through her husband’s career as an officer her focus has been on preventing burnout, exhaustion and a tanked immune system that she knew can result from high levels of stress that are out of your control.
As she watched his co-workers struggle with everything from sleep, exhaustion and anger leading to divorce, PTSD and even suicide it became apparent how LIFE-SAVING the foundations she was laying down for her husband actually were, because not only was he tolerating the shiftwork lifestyle, he was thriving in it.
Andi created 911 Lifestyle once she realized the strategies her husband was using MUST become available to all Police Officers and First Responders so they can peak during crisis, recover quickly after, have energy left over for their families and become the Elite First Responders that they were born to be.