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ColonelUnited States Air Force and spouse

Stress, Sleep, and Mood
Exercise, Sleep, Communicate
Couple Communication

If you work for a public safety agency–law enforcement, fire, or emergency medical response–the nature of your work exposes you to stress. Any job can create “ordinary” stress. You have that. And your work also produces extraordinary stress.

Your stressors come in many forms.

  • The work is “crisis driven.”
  • The physical demands of the job can be extreme.
  • Shift work hours can be long, erratic, and lead to sleep deprivation.
  • Adversarial encounters with people are common.

Dealing with trauma, violence, death, harm to children, and injury, including to self and co-workers, are inherently traumatizing experiences.

Sleep deprivation can lead to irritability, lack of attention to detail, issues with concentration and memory, and can affect your mood, work performance, and personal relationships.

First responder work changes who you are. A key to understanding and managing these stressors is knowing that they are sneaky and cumulative. They will affect your health and all other aspects of your life.

And here’s the kicker: your family and others close to you go through most of it too, no matter how you try to shield them.

Stress, Sleep, and Mood

Sleep - Stress - Mood Venn diagram
In most of our lives stress, sleep, and mood are so interconnected that it can be hard to see where one stops and another begins, unless we can step back and see them more clearly, which may take help from a trained and experienced professional.

Your work requires interacting with people who are in difficult situations. You must be courteous and professional. At the same time you need to be vigilant–alert and quick thinking–to protect yourself and others. You must judge appropriately and shift quickly between these two extremes many times in the course of a single shift. Striking the right balance is not easy. It requires yet another kind of vigilance for something that is not always clear.

Being in emergency situations keeps your “fight or flight” response engaged. Adrenalin and natural steroids are flowing through your body. That natural response keeps you alert and alive on the job, and can leave you exhausted at the end of the day. What helps you survive on the job can undermine your personal relationships outside of the job.

Those around you will know what you go through whether you want them to or not. They will also go through a form of the stressful experience themselves, unless you all work together to create an environment where stressors are lessened.

Not talking about work with family members may seem the best way to protect them. Yet stress will find a way out in other–often harmful–forms. Excessive drinking, withdrawing to TV or video games, irritability, and angry outbursts are ways stress shows up in daily life.

Chronic stress leads to depression, anxiety, poor memory and thinking. It can cause family conflicts. This is not the way that emergency work should change your life.

Exercise, Sleep, Communicate

What can you do to prevent this cycle? Seek help now, no matter what stage you feel yourself in. Learning how your actions may be increasing stress, decreasing sleep, and leading to depression can lead to small daily changes that add up to long-term solutions.

Daily exercise has been shown to relieve stress, enhance mood, and promote better sleep. Something as simple as breathing in through your nose instead of your mouth can make a major change. Breathing in through your mouth activates the “flight or flight” response. Breathing in through your nose slows your heart and breath rate and the production of adrenalin and steroids. Nose breathing is a very handy little tool, not just for exercise. Put it in “muscle memory” so you don’t have to think about it in stressful situations.

Develop healthy sleep habits. For example, remember the bed is for two things–sleep and sex. If you have been in bed longer than 30 minutes and haven’t gone to sleep, get out of bed and go to another room that is quiet and relaxing.
Some other basics:

  • If possible, don’t have caffeine, alcohol, nicotine, heavy meals, or heavy exercise right before bedtime.
  • Sleep in a cool, dark room.
  • Keep a sleep record for a couple of weeks. It can reveal where you can make small changes to improve sleep.

When you are ready for sleep, if you have thoughts you can’t get out of your head, try this. Write all your stressors on an imaginary blackboard, then erase the entire board. If there are any remaining chalk marks, go back and wash the entire board with a wet sponge. When that blackboard is clean, your mind can rest.

Have you ever had that feeling of a “weight” being lifted after you finally talked about something you’ve been avoiding? Your mood is shaped by how you think about and make sense of the events and stressors in your life. If you find yourself in a negative “thought rut,” remember the “First Rule of Holes: when you’re in one, stop digging.” If what you are doing with your kids, your spouse or partner, your parents, your boss isn’t working, more of the same isn’t going to work better. The best way out of a hole is to reach out for a little help from a professional who isn’t living in your skin–one who isn’t going to give you “advice” and is going to help you learn new, healthy ways to see and manage your life.

Couple Communication

If the stressors in your life have led to a breakdown in communication with your spouse or partner, seek help early, before you are so emotionally disconnected that you don’t even like each any more. Research has shown that couples headed for divorce are five times more negative in their interactions with one another than stable couples. Negative feelings lead to the same “fight or flight” hyper-vigilance that keeps you alert and safe on the job but locked in perpetual negative gridlock in personal relationships.

That same research shows that four communication styles are predictive of divorce: criticism, defensiveness, stonewalling, and contempt. If you see yourself and your spouse or partner in any of these patterns, seek help. Together you can learn how to have positive and respectful conversations about the issues that come up in every relationship and can be intensified by the additional stress of being a first responder.

As a San Francisco Police Department Specialty Provider and Military and Family Life Counselor, I have seen couples turn their relationships around, even after decades of entrenched problems. Let me help you have the life and relationships you want and deserve.

1st Responder Resources

SFPD Police Officers Association Journal see Bonnie's article on page 20 called "Do's and Don'ts" to Avoid Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) After a Situation

San Francisco Police Officer’s Association
(Information, Resources)

West Coast Post Trauma Retreat
(PTSD Treatment)

California Peace Officers Association
(Information, Training)

California Firefighters Association
(Information, Training)

California Sheriffs Association
(Information, Training)

California Association of Highway Patrolmen
(Information, Training)

MHN Employee Assistance Programs
(Work, Life Services)