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Wildland Firefighter Health & Safety Report

Issue No. 13

Risk Management

Stress Management

Stress can be described as an imbalance between the demands of our environment and our ability to respond to those demands. Managing stress, or coping, requires adjusting the environment, our personal abilities, or the way we view our world. Situations that seem to be beyond our ability to respond may call for a combination of these coping behaviors.

Coping strategies that work for an individual depend on a host of factors, such as personal preferences, life experiences, the nature and duration of the challenges, and many others. Physical exercise promotes overall fitness and can help individuals manage stress. Exercise does so both by removing us temporarily from a stressful environment and by helping us to be at our best when we're dealing with stress.

Exercise and Stress

Regular moderate exercise minimizes the effects of stress. Exercise is relaxing and has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce levels of epinephrine and cortisol, the stress hormones. Exercise may serve as a positive coping strategy, a diversion, a distraction, or a timeout from the problems and stresses of life.

Exercise occupies the mind, allowing time to pass during difficult periods. Regular exercise can substitute a good habit for bad ones, a positive addiction for negative ones. Exercise can be a form of meditation, providing the benefits of other forms of meditation along with improvements in health and fitness.

Regular exercise provides a sense of control and mastery over one dimension of life, and may improve mastery and control over other dimensions.

Better time management, changes in the physical and organizational environment, and a strong support system can help persons manage stress in a potentially stressful environment.

Adjusting the way we view or think about the world is another way to cope with life's challenges. Relaxation and meditation can help us adjust our perceptions. The practices range from those associated with specific religious beliefs to those focused purely on physical relaxation. In his 1975 book "The Relaxation Response," Herbert Benson, M.D., outlines the process.

Sit in a comfortable chair in a quiet room, eyes closed, and repeat a word (a mantra such as "easy") each time you exhale. Do this for 20 minutes. Concentrating on breathing and the mantra masks disturbing thoughts, and the body begins to relax. As you become more proficient with the technique, you may achieve an advanced state of relaxation, clear thought, and a sense of well being. With practice you will be able to use the skill while driving, at work, or even in sport (e.g., tennis), to relax and manage stress. Relaxation has been shown to lower blood pressure, improve immune function and improve one's sense of well-being.

Ways of coping with stress are personal, based on who we are and the particular challenges we face. It's important that we recognize when we are feeling out of balance and find healthy ways to regain control.

Photo of a man walking along a roadway.