In 2017, a total of 103 (reported) firefighters committed suicide. That is 103 families torn apart with very few answers hoping to turn back time just enough to have an impact on these tired souls that made the decision to end their life on their own terms. First responders are five times more likely to suffer from depression and PTSD compared to the general population. The International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) takes these numbers extremely seriously and has begun implementing phenomenal resources to identify and offer treatment to our brothers and sisters who are having a tough time.
I have been in the fire service for just about a decade and I’ve worked along side many of the best men and women that exist on this planet. I have met some firefighters whom truly have it all together. They do not get stressed. Nothing seems to ever get to them. They are able to push themselves to the physical and mental limit, recover and do it all again without missing a step. These individuals have resilience to stress. They may have learned it early in life or maybe it is in their DNA. I, however am not of those people. I have had to work on my ability to handle and process all kinds of stress. Stress at work. Stress at home and everything in between. I have had challenging calls that I allowed to get to me. I have had challenges at home both as a husband and father that I have let get to me. Over the years I have let the stressful situations in my life control me as opposed to controlling them. I honestly never thought it was possible to control stress. I always thought that one just reacts to stress-over and over and over again.
We all know the stresses that firefighters face. Physical, mental and emotional stress exist almost every day both on and off duty for firefighters throughout the world. After a long shift you go home just hoping to get some rest however your family has different plans. As a spouse, father or mother you have been gone for 24 hours (sometimes more) and now, after having 3 calls after midnight of which one of them was working a cardiac arrest and another a house fire your family is ready to have you home. Does this sound familiar? For me, coming home after a long shift my patience was almost nonexistent with my loved ones. This isn’t fair to anyone but I just believed this is the price you pay for the greatest career on Earth.
What if even after being sleep deprived and physically exhausted we could hit the “reset” button before we got home allowing ourselves to be truly present with our family and enjoy our days off? What if we could take control of our stress during our workday so the challenging calls don’t add up to the point that we are overwhelmed and don’t think we have any more options?
The WIM HOF METHOD
I was first introduced to the Wim Hof Method over 2 years ago randomly by a friend in Colorado Springs. I truly began to practice the method every day after being injured on the job and hitting my low point physically, mentally and emotionally. After only a few months of dedicated practice I began to feel better than I ever have in my entire life and things just keep getting better! The method consists of three pillars-Breathwork, gradual exposure to the cold and commitment. Wim Hof AKA the ICEMAN has broken multiple world records by controlling his body temperature even under the most extreme of conditions.
A healthy stress response can make you alert and will prime your body to tackle challenges. However, after the threat or challenge is dealt with, your body should return to its normal state. This is the classic example of back in the day when we went hunting for food. You came out of the cave and began being chased by a tiger. Your sympathetic nervous system aka fight/flight response kicks into high gear and you escape the threat and take cover in your safe cave. The threat Is gone and your body can relax-going into the parasympathetic nervous system or rest and digest. The major problem we face now a days is that our bodies cannot tell the difference between a real stress or a perceived one. Every time the tones go off. Every difficult call we run. Every time we come home tired and stressed and have a list a mile long of what needs to be done. All these stressors release the same hormones as being chased by that tiger. Adrenaline, Noradrenaline and Cortisol. This is called chronic stress and it is a killer in the Fire Service. Chronic stress health problems include anxiety, depression, heart disease, digestive problems, headaches, sleep problems, weight gain and many more.
What if we can take control of this system teaching our bodies how to handle and process stress so we are no longer negatively affected by it? This is what the Wim Hof Method teaches. One part of the method is gradual exposure to the cold. Imagine you are taking a nice hot shower and you decide to turn the lever all the way to the cold. How do you react? Do you scream? Do you tense up? Do you begin to hyperventilate? Do you jump out of the shower as fast as a human can? Are your thoughts racing every possible direction trying to find a way out of this stress? These are all normal responses that I would expect any one to have when they first begin. We can use the environment to see how we react to a stress and over time learn to control our reaction. What if, when the water was turned all the way cold you controlled your breathing, controlled your emotions and your thoughts finding comfort in this environmental stress. The way you do anything is the way you do everything.
If we are able, over time learn to control our reaction to the cold we can lean to control it anywhere. Once the stress-sympathetic response is over our body can move into the rest mode-parasympathetic because there is no longer a threat. We are hitting the “reset” button on our nervous system. Learning how to handle, process and then turn the stress response to the off position as opposed to always being on “high alert” just in case we get a call or waiting for something to piss you off at home. We are training ourselves to truly be in rest mode. We can recover better. We can be happy. We can be strong. We can be healthy. This powerful exercise coupled with the specific breathing technique can give anyone the ability to gain control of our fight or flight response re-training our minds and body how to handle, process and then let stress go in every aspect of our lives. Imagine going home after a long, challenging shift and letting all that stress go giving our nervous system a chance to recover and enjoy an amazing day with your loving family. The firefighters in my department are telling me that no matter how challenging the shift was after spending 20 minutes breathing and then going into some cold water they feel completely refreshed just like after a great night of sleep.
This method affected me in such a positive way that I became a Certified Wim Hof Method instructor. I am currently teaching in Phoenix, Arizona helping show my brothers and sisters in the fire service the power within each one of them. The mission is to eliminate first responder suicide starting with controlling our ability to handle, process and let go of any stress we may face. There are several instructors scattered throughout the world so I encourage anyone looking to take back the control in their life to seek them out. A simple way to start out is just “google” Wim Hof and look at some of the videos and articles that pop up.
We as a fire service are doing better at addressing mental health, however I truly believe that we can be doing more. WE have the tools inside of us to be happy, strong and healthy-they are just not awakened yet.