Dear Firefighter Spouse:
Has your husband or wife ever come home and you thought a bear walked through the door? Or wondered, “Who is this person?” “The job has hardened them” or “I don’t even recognize this person anymore”? Don’t worry, you’re not alone. We are in this together. It is different being married to a first responder, I understand because I’m a firefighter wife too. The good news about the bear is, it isn’t your husband or wife at all. Their mood isn’t reflective of who they are as a person, and most likely it is a chemical imbalance that resulted from a sleepless, stressful night while they were on shift. Fortunately, these chemicals, known as neurotransmitters, can be balanced. With a little work and commitment, your husband or wife will return to the person you first fell in love with.
The unfortunate evils of the world that our firefighter partners see and endure day in and day out culminate. Consider sleep like a built-in chemical therapist, regulating the neurochemistry of our day to day emotions. Without sleep, the brain has a markedly decreased capacity to process trauma and stressors, compounding into a chemical imbalance. This will often manifest as snappiness, irrationality, depression and lack of motivation. These symptoms may stand alone but are often a direct result of sleep deprivation. In the First Responder Sleep Recovery Training, I teach about how sleep loss triggers the body to enter “fight or flight,” a part of our autonomic nervous system that directs the body into survival mode. Over time this heightened state of alarm degrades our mental function, and parts of our brain turn off entirely. For example, our prefrontal cortex which is responsible for executive decision making, and rational thinking will actually shrink from the stress of sleep loss. The part of the brain that takes over the driver’s seat is a lot more impulsive, haughty and irrational! We must first understand this physiologic consequence that results from our partner’s line of work, and then we can go to work to help mitigate the effects.
I remember my husband and I were teaching in the Midwest a few months ago and a firefighter in our class asked us “Will you please teach this class to my wife?” This moment was a turning point to my consideration of how spouses can support each other. I have to admit, even me, the firefighter wife sleep expert, have moments from time to time where I catch myself. It is a practice to honor the time my husband needs to sleep while he recovers from running 4 or 5 calls after midnight the night before….and more importantly, to do so with patience and understanding. It’s tempting to want to wake him whether it be because I’m either excited to spend time with him, or I need him to help me haul in firewood (or some other mundane task that in all honesty, I could probably do myself). Yes, it’s tempting, but I stop and check myself. No matter how frustrated I feel, I let him sleep. He’s off limits. This is a call to action: we as first responder spouses MUST check ourselves. No matter how many kids, no matter how many side jobs. They need rest. Meaningful rest and recovery will save relationships and marriages, and our spouse’s lives depend on it. I understand, almost every firefighter has a uniquely busy home life. We must respect our firefighter spouses’ downtime. It is OUR RESPONSIBILITY to promote it and to create a designated space and time for it. Here are three reasons why that will benefit you both.
#1 Better Sex
Did you know that testosterone levels peak about 90 minutes into sleep? This is while REM sleep occurs, a phase of sleep highly important for psychological wellbeing- but also for hormonal health. Chances are while they are at the firehouse, they are woken up too frequently to ever access REM sleep, and their testosterone levels suffer. So let them sleep when they get home, and their testosterone levels will bounce back.
Before you and your spouse make your daily coffee run to kickstart the day, or wrap up the night over cocktails, consider this about your sex life:
- Cold isn’t the only culprit for shrinkage, Caffeine is too:
Caffeine is a vasoconstrictor. This means blood flow is restricted to all the important parts needed for various functions in the bedroom. Vasoconstriction puts excess pressure on the heart. Skip the caffeine, let’s keep our firefighter’s hearts beating strong.
Consider an alternative: an amino acid to supplement with called L-Arginine. Arginine helps the body produce nitric oxide, a vasodilator which is good for heart health. It helps blood vessels relax, increases blood flow and lowers blood pressure. There’s some research that shows it benefits heart health. There is a strong reason this powerhouse amino acid is a key ingredient in many sports shakes and male enhancement products.
*Always check with your physician before taking any supplements.
- The soft side of Alcohol:
If your partner resorts to whiskey and coke or some other nightcap, I caution against that. Alcohol impairs the body from entering REM sleep, when testosterone replenishes. Even modest chronic alcohol consumption leads to low T and erectile dysfunction. It may even make it more difficult for men and women to achieve organism. The only thing soft in bed should be the pillows. If your partner needs it to relax, try some alternative activity that brings you closer. Give each other a foot massage. Be honest, when was the last time you did that for each other? Or hey, even better, get out the lavender oil and do a full body massage. Who knows, it might lead you to get even closer. You can thank me later.
I can promise you, if you skip these two types of beverages, you will both experience a much…..fuller….. connection ;-).
#2 Better Mood & Overall Relationship
Did you know that when your firefighter spouse lacks sleep the brain’s neurotransmitters become dysregulated? There are two key neurotransmitters associated with our mood, how we feel, and how motivated we are to do…anything! (Listen up here for the firefighter spouses who would like their partner to be more motivated and actually REMEMBER that thing you asked him/her to do last week). These neurotransmitters are called serotonin and dopamine. Sleep deprived individuals share something in common with those who have diagnosed depression and anxiety, and it’s substantially lower levels of serotonin and dopamine. Consider when your firefighter gets off shift to play his or her favorite music or go out together for a walk in the sun, these activities will give a good boost of these feel-good chemicals to help balance the brain and emotions. If you want to try something new together, try learning how to meditate.
Meditation is one of the most highly effective practices to restore the emotions and neuro-plasticity of the brain while slowing the heart rate and improving immune function. I teach firefighters what I consider the easiest type of meditation in my training. It’s called the Sleep Recovery Practice. It has some other elements that comprise the practice, including stretches that target specific muscles to release tension from the body, breathing techniques that activate the parasympathetic nervous system to relax and finally a guided meditation experience that is so effortless most firefighters fall asleep during the experience. It’s excellent for turning off a busy mind and leaves everyone feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. One firefighter I worked with said, “[I’ve] been practicing the Sleep Recovery Practice every day and night and so far I feel great! Thank you. I finally feel like my head is clear and not in a fog anymore. Haven’t felt this way in about five years.”
- What is the Sleep Recovery Practice?
The Sleep Recovery Practice is type of relaxation practice that originates from a very specific type of meditation called “Yoga Nidra.” It has been shown to help the body relax, calm the busy mind and prepare for good sleep. It’s clinically used as treatment for PTSD, anxiety, insomnia, and depression. I have tailored it to the unique needs of the fire service, focusing on effective methods to relax and release tension so the body can effectively recover. These methods can be put into practice after returning from a call in the middle of the night, during moments the brain feels wide awake and alert from the adrenaline dump that lingers. One member of the Arvada Fire department who took our class this month said “After the Sleep Recovery Practice I felt AMAZING! I had a stressful week and I did not anticipate being able to let those anxieties go during that time frame. I knew those items that were making my life busy were still there but I felt more control and overall calmness about them.” In a study of Yoga Nidra out of The State University Hospital in Copenhagen, researchers took pictures of brainwave activity while participants entered a deeply relaxing state of meditation through the guided meditation instruction. This study and others, recorded the slowing of brainwaves, reduction in heart rate, better respiration and practitioners reported an increased sense of wellness. One of the most striking findings of the Copenhagen study was that during the Nidra meditation, practitioners had an increase of endogenous dopamine production of 65 %. This is the perfect antidote for not only sleep deprived firefighters but for exhausted spouses as well!
#3 Better Health
Contrary to popular belief, sleep is not a waste of time. There is no better time spent. A lot of processes are happening to enhance the brain, repair the heart, strengthen immune function and balance of all the hormones in the body. On the other hand, sleep loss is nothing other than an accelerator for premature death. Research shows that sleep loss is causal in disease development. Healthy sleep creates homeostasis and wards off mental and physical sickness, defending against cancer and promoting heart health. During certain phases of sleep, the heart rate becomes very low and gives the whole cardiovascular system a breather. Without sleep, the cardiovascular system remains under high pressure. Imagine the functionality of an engine that never stops running, eventually, it will break down.
My husband’s father, who was also a firefighter, experienced a nearly fatal cardiac event and underwent a quintuple bypass 20 years into his career. Thankfully he survived and is still around and healthy today. I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want my husband to become another firefighter statistic. Side note… no matter how much working out the body does, it will not repair and keep the heart healthy the way true restorative sleep does. You need both. Let’s put it this way- the body can survive for long periods without working out, but cannot remain alive without sleep. I find it fascinating that much of the general population will sacrifice a good night’s sleep before ever missing a day at the gym. (We can save the conversation around what diets are best for when you take my class or for another time.) My husband and I recently started working out together again, and it was something we used to do independently. What an easy way to have fun, to challenge each other and simply spend time together creating a healthy lifestyle. Go climb stairs together wearing some gear, try a yoga class or get out into nature and move your bodies.
According to the publication Prevention of Chronic Disease by Means of Diet and Lifestyle, the “general conclusion is that reducing identified, modifiable dietary and lifestyle risk factors could prevent most cases of Coronary Artery Disease, stroke, diabetes, and many cancers.” Some estimates are up to 95% citing lifestyle as the cause of these diseases. This is good news! We can support our spouses by participating in good health practices together. We know most firefighters exercise regularly and eat relatively healthy. Yet heart attacks and cancers continue to be cited as the leading causes of firefighter death. What’s the underlying lifestyle factor? Disrupted circadian rhythms that are part of life as a first responder. It is no longer a question as to whether or not sleep loss contributes to the disease process; it’s fact. As a spouse, let this information empower you to support your husband or wife in the right ways. It’s up to us:
- Work Out Together! Research shows that it doesn’t really matter when, but that optimizing your sleep will improve your muscular strength and recovery, and conversely working out will also support quality sleep.
- Create a Healthy Daily Routine! The body is highly receptive to structured daily routines. The subconscious mind directs most of our behavior, so use this to your advantage. Try and have regularities in your morning and evening routines.
- Designate a time and space for rest and recovery every day, even if it is only 15 or 20 minutes. Some NFL teams have dark rooms for the players to take naps for recovery. Our first responders are the pros of the emergency services and deserve the same opportunity to recover. Don’t multitask in your sleep space.
- Get ALL technology out of the bedroom, keep it cool, dark and quiet. This will remind you that space is for quality time with your partner, or for the beneficial purpose of rest and recovery so you both will be at your best!
Let’s remember, as the spouse of a firefighter, it is our responsibility to care for their sleep health. They will sacrifice their time to rest to their own detriment. Think long term when you are faced with the choice to support your partner taking some time to rest or not. If we support our firefighter husbands and wives, through sleep recovery, diet and routine, we support them to achieve optimal health. This way we will have them around to enjoy life long after retirement. Doesn’t that sound nice?
Sincerely … Your Fellow & Proud Firefighter Spouse,
Founder, First Responder Sleep Recovery