During a recent conversation with a friend and veteran 911 Dispatcher, she mentioned how many of our cohort seem to be getting more anxious with age. We also seem to be having more negative effects due to stress. We seem to be less tolerant of stress as we get older. I realized she was right and that the nature of our work as first responders increases the negative effects. Before we look at how stress affects us differently as we age, here's a reminder of what stress does to our bodies. A Harvard Health Letter explains this well:
When the brain senses danger or a need to fight, it sounds the alarm for action: it tells the muscles to tighten and signals the adrenal glands to release stress hormones—such as adrenaline and cortisol. Those hormones make you breathe faster, getting more oxygen to your muscles, and they trigger the release of sugar and fat into the blood, giving your cells more energy. To accommodate these needs, your heart beats faster and your blood pressure goes up. Once the brain senses safety, body function returns to normal.
This reaction is part of our survival mode and is essential if we're in the woods and suddenly come upon a bear. But everyone who has worked under a headset knows that this doesn't just happen due to an actual threat, but also due to perceived threat including experiencing someone else's threat, like our callers and our field responders. The Harvard Health Letter explains the consequences of continual stress:
If you put your body through those paces frequently, or even constantly, you may suffer a cascade of dangerous and sometimes lasting effects such as high blood pressure, a weakened immune system, anxiety, depression, insomnia, heartburn, indigestion, and an increased risk for heart disease.
So we know that we have on-going layered stress, but what does this mean as we age?
Stress affects us differently. Our bodies can't physically handle stress the same way it did when we were younger. Our cells are aging. Our hearts and lungs have a decreased capacity. We can no longer adequately accommodate our physiological response to stress, creating, for example increased inflammation. In addition to our cells naturally aging, a sedentary lifestyle, as well as chronic disease aggravates this even more.
Coping with stress mentally, becomes more challenging as we age. As part of our stress response, hormones flood the brain. This shuts down the frontal lobe which is responsible for our executive function, including impulse control, perspective, attention and decision making. Sleep helps flush these hormones and as we age, we sleep less and less soundly. This leads to more stress hormones staying in the brain.
As we age, stress may be caused by different factors. This further complicates our response and our ability to cope. Triggers change. Cumulative stress adds up. Our maladaptive behaviors, particularly ones supported by the first responder culture perpetuate. Unmanaged stress can create cognitive issues, such as memory loss, and trouble concentrating, appetite changes, headaches, gastrointestinal problems, heart palpitations and mood disturbance, like anxiety and irritability.
It's not all doom and gloom for those in our profession as we move towards retirement. Simple management techniques can be learned at any point Of course the younger and newer in the work the better. Here are some ideas:
· Relaxation techniques, including meditation, breathing and grounding exercises
· Pursue activities that bring you joy and socialize
· Eat well
· Get enough sleep
· Stick to other healthy activities, like exercise
· Seek professional help
· Remember why you do what you do
· Talk to your support people
The final one is especially important. Research shows positive relationships are the strongest protective factor. In fact skills plus relationships equals resilience which is the ability to move through adversity. Our supportive human connections mean safety and that is the foundation our our ability to cope with stress.
As 911 Dispatchers, we not only face the typical lifespan adversities, but also the cumulative stress of being first responders. We age like everyone else while at the same time we age differently due to our work. Thankfully knowledge turns into understanding and we have the power to halt some of the negative consequences of stress.