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The Mind and Body Connection: Somatic Stress and the First Responder

Updated: Aug 14, 2019

Somatization. A word that most people have not heard of, but almost everyone has experienced. Ever been on a first date and felt “butterflies in your stomach”? How about getting off a scary ride and going temporarily “weak in the knees”? Or getting a headache or stomachache right before a big presentation? That’s somatization. Webster’s Dictionary defines it as, “conversion of a mental state into physical symptoms”. It is very common and usually happens when a person is in a high stress situation. Now, you may argue, “a roller coaster ride/first date isn’t stressful, it’s fun!” True. But your body doesn’t know that. All it knows is that your emotions are running high and all signals are telling it that “something possibly dangerous is about to happen”.

Have you ever seen a nature documentary where an antelope is chased by a lion? The antelope’s adrenaline kicks in, enabling it to run fast and far in an instant and out of harm's way. Be that as it may, after the chase is over and the antelope is safe, you will often see it sit down and shake for a few minutes. This is a sign that the excess adrenaline is working its’ way out of their nervous system before they can return to baseline functioning. This is a healthy coping mechanism and one that helps the animal return to life as normal. Humans experience this as well. After a traumatic or stressful experience, it is common for a person to have the same physical reaction as the antelope, even when the event was not actually life-threatening.

There is a reason why this is phrase is important to the first responder community. Most first responders will be exposed to trauma in the course of their jobs. Many may become familiar with helping a victim go through the stages of their emotional and physical response to and recovery from a traumatic experience, up to and including “shock”. However, even in the most extreme situations, first responders are trained to keep their own body’s responses in check. It would not do the victims any good for the first responder to fully experience the traumatic event along with them. Keeping emotions and reactions at bay allows the first responders to do their jobs, no matter what the circumstance on scene.

However, the first responders themselves are also experiencing their own stress responses, whether or not they are showing it, that they need to be aware of and ensure they resolve fully before moving on to the next event. Over time, even the spike of adrenaline that comes from hearing the tones go off after midnight, or the crackling of radio dispatch calling for your unit number can dysregulate the nervous system if the body is not allowed to respond to and resolve the event. If repeated stress responses in the body build up without also being released, somatic distress can occur. Headaches, backaches, insomnia, chronic fatigue, muscle pain, irritability, and anxiety are some ways in which your body will let you know that there is some unresolved stress responses in your body that needs addressing.

Some healthy ways of releasing pent up stress are to engage in activities that allow for the full expression of emotion and physicality. By going through the four steps of Safety, you can return your body, mind, and emotions to a state of calm.

1) Environmental Safety. When you are back to the safety of your station, take some deep breaths and allow yourself to stay connected to the present moment. Remind yourself that you are in a safe environment. Allow yourself a moment to tune into your felt sense of safety.

2) Body Safety. Going for a jog, doing yoga, or completing a workout are some ways in which your body can free itself from excess tension. Send awareness into your body and intentionally release any held tension left over from a stressful call or event. Take some time to breathe, focusing on the outbreath. Let your body move from “fight/flight” to “rest/digest” mode.

3) Emotional Safety. Often there are calls that will be painful to witness. You will be first on scene for many of life’s hardest moments. Loss of a child, a parent, a loved one. You may be witness to deep emotional pain and human suffering. It is human to feel empathy towards people in these moments. However, the toll of holding space for devastating emotions can be incredibly draining. Take some time after a tough call to talk with a teammate, call the Chaplain, or journal about what you are feeling. Emotional empathy is not a weakness, but an integral part of what makes you an effective first responder.

4) Relational Safety. Having a good laugh with a friend, running around with your kids, connecting in conversation with a loved one, or receiving a hug are other ways in which you can re-establish safety in connection. Everyone’s body reacts differently to stress so become pro-active in recognizing the somatic symptoms of stress in your own body and know when you need to reach out for help.

If you need help discovering your stress triggers and responses, reach out to a trained professional for help. Start with clearing your body of tension; your mind will follow. Then, you can begin to implement measures that will help you relax and release tension so that you will function at your highest level the next time duty calls.

------This is part 3 in a four part series on the risks of Stress in the First Responder Community for September 2016: Suicide Awareness Month----

Visit or call 512-887-8036 to book a couples' or individual counseling session. Discounted rates for first-responders. Like our Facebook page for more articles like this one.

Kristal DeSantis, M.A., LMFT-A, is the wife of a first-responder, and founder of Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center in Austin, TX

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