Yoga Therapy, PTSD and the Life of a “Fire Wife”
You might ask yourself how Yoga and “Fire Wife” are related but let me tell you – yoga training has helped me a lot in this very important supporting role I have landed in.
One of the first lessons I learned was that what works for one “fire family” may not work for the next one. A friend of mine whose father is a volunteer firefighter sat me down after I started dating a volunteer firefighter and did her best to tell me what to expect. In that family, everyone jumps when the pager goes off in the middle of the night, especially in the winter. They all had a job to do while Dad got dressed. Mom would make sure his boots and coat were by the door and my friend would run outside and start sweeping snow off the vehicle so Dad could see the road on his way to the firehall. She also told me vehicles are always parked facing out the driveway and NEVER block in the volunteer firefighter’s vehicle. And be ready to make sandwiches at any time if they get stuck for hours at a barn fire. So I bought an extra loaf of bread and thought I was all ready to go. I asked Todd “What is my role here? How can I help? What do you want me to do when the pager goes off?” He looked me straight in the eyes with a very serious face and said “Stay the fuck out of my way”. Having grown up on a farm I knew there was two things I could do well here: Back the truck into the driveway and stay the fuck out of the way.
Rituals and routines play a big part before and after the fire call. Just as each firefighter has their own way of preparing ahead for when the pager goes off, they also have their own way of dealing with what happens after the emergency is over. Standardized procedures on the job help keep them safe and do their job efficiently. Rituals and routines before and after the call provide structure and helps them maintain a sense of continuity and predictability in an otherwise unpredictable job.
Firefighters and other first responders are frequently exposed to potentially traumatic events as a normal course of this job. And being on-call 24/7 just adds to the stress and disruption to home and work life. Post traumatic stress is a condition being increasingly recognized and understood in firefighters and other first responders.
As a spouse/partner we can help by recognizing the visible warning signs of PTSD:
- Isolation from others
- Disturbed sleep
- Increased irritability
- Decreased interest in significant activities
- Self-destructive or reckless behavior
And keep aware of the invisible signs the firefighter might be experiencing:
- Intrusive memories or thoughts of a traumatic event
- Avoidance of thoughts, feelings or external reminders of the event
- Feelings of numbness
- Hypervigilance or exaggerated states of fear
- Persistent, negative beliefs about yourself and the world
If you or your spouse/partner notice something like this it is important to get in touch with someone who can help – the sooner the better. Contact your EAP, or a peer support group like Boots On The Ground (bootsontheground.ca or 1-833-677-2668). If there is an immediate crisis, call 911.
Medical professionals and other organizations are realizing the significant physical and psychological benefits of yoga through various programs such as Yoga For First Responders (YFFR) and numerous research studies conducted on the benefits of yoga for veterans with PTSD. Not only does yoga help after PTSD has developed, but more importantly a regular yoga practice can help build resiliency and a systematic skill set to help combat the high rates of Post Traumatic Stress, heart attack, suicide and other stress-based issues in the first responder population.
A yoga practice provides the following skills or tools that can help the firefighter both on and off the job:
- physical conditioning
- breath awareness to regulate the nervous system
- mental and emotional conditioning
- self awareness
These same skills can also help the spouse/partner of the firefighter manage their own stress and become more resilient and learn to return to a calm state more quickly. These skills help contribute to a family and home life that is less turbulent by regulating emotions and reactions. Don’t get me wrong – it is important to HAVE feelings and emotions and learn skills to process them so that the feelings and emotions don’t get in the way of your health and enjoyment of life. This of course has benefits for everyone, not just firefighters and their families.
Learning to apply these strategies to serve your needs is where a trained Yoga Therapist is helpful. While any yoga is potentially beneficial, it is important to find the right class or teacher for your needs. A Yoga Therapist is trained not only in the techniques and skills, but in conducting assessments and setting up plans for individuals to achieve their health & wellness goals including protocols for anxiety, depression, addiction and PTSD.
My personal yoga practice has helped me in the role of “fire wife” by training me to be aware of how my physical body responds to stress and how my thoughts/worries take on a life of their own under stress. I have learned to be aware of these things happening, and to lessen their impact so over time I can prevent escalation by developing my own rituals and routines when the pager goes off. Regular physical yoga practice, breathwork and meditation are key components to keep me at my best.