Meditate on this: yoga can help emergency dispatchers deal with stress.

The health risks of living with the accumulated stress that comes with a job as an emergency dispatcher, or other first-responder, have long been discussed among 911 and mental health professionals.  Compassion fatigue, anxiety, depression, acute stress, and post-traumatic stress can all lead to a myriad of physical health problems, such as high blood pressure, weight gain, headaches, and other chronic pains to only name a few.  And so, health care providers strongly recommend physical exercise to help the body combat these health risks.  But what about the mind?  Yoga and mindful meditation exercises are just as important for the mind as physical exercise is for the body, which are essential in helping emergency dispatchers build healthy resiliency to manage stress.

Dina Jump

Dina Jump, a yoga instructor in Las Vegas, NV.

A job in emergency communications is inherently stressful and often haunts dispatchers with feelings of helplessness, guilt, depression, and anxiety.   The constant hypervigilance, dissociative emotionality, and exposure to traumatic incidents can have a heavy toll on the overall wellbeing of police and fire dispatchers.  It is heartbreaking to hear stories of struggle from dispatchers in coping with a thankless job that demands so much.  Dispatchers are, after all, only human and they experience the same wide range of emotions as the rest of us.  “Yoga is about teaching people how to live minute-to-minute with life’s ever changing challenges, which is ideal for dispatchers who can experience an emotional roller-coaster”, said Dina Jump, a yoga instructor in Las Vegas, NV.  “People always say, ‘I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible’, but that’s exactly why you do yoga, so you get flexible… not in a crazy bendy way to become some kind of contortionist, but to learn to bend so you won’t break.”

Ashley Arroliga, RYT200, a certified yoga instructor and the founder of Apothecary Yoga, specializing in yoga therapy in Irvine, CA

Ashley Arroliga, RYT200, a certified yoga instructor and the founder of Apothecary Yoga, specializing in yoga therapy in Irvine, CA

There is no simple definition for yoga, according to Ashley Arroliga, RYT200, a certified yoga instructor and the founder of Apothecary Yoga, specializing in yoga therapy in Irvine, CA.  “Yoga is a multi-disciplinary approach to balancing the mind, body, and spirit incorporating different techniques of stretching, posing, breathing, mantra (chanting), and meditation in order to create more sustained joy”.  Sounds simple enough.  However, yoga requires a deep self-awareness in the present state, not thinking about the past or the future.  “Many people live in the past or in the future; thus, they experience feelings of guilt/shame for what has happened in the past, or they suffer from anxiety worrying about things to come in the future… neither of those feelings exist in the present”, said Arroliga. 

Jamie Zeller knows those feelings all too well.  She spent 18 years as a dispatcher with the Escondido Police Department (CA), and now serves the same city in a new role as a code enforcement officer.  She answered every type of 911 call imaginable and also served as a tactical dispatcher on incidents that required SWAT team response.  “Dispatchers deal with everyone else’s emergencies, but what they seem to ignore is their own bodies’ emergencies”, said Zeller, who has been doing yoga for the last 7 years.  Zeller found that her yoga carried on over to the dispatch floor as well because she could easily do breathing exercises while plugged in sitting at the console to help relieve tension.  Jessica S., a 10-year veteran public-safety dispatch in Michigan, said she needed more “ME” time that was more than just mindless couch-sitting in front of the television.  “I gave yoga a shot and immediately felt the benefits: I was happier and had higher productivity at work.” 

But improving work performance is only one benefit for dispatchers who do yoga.  “Yoga and mindfulness programs have been studied in PTSD and other anxiety disorders, and there is growing evidence these programs can relieve stress, reduce PTSD symptoms, and enhance overall well-being”, said Dr. Marlynn Wei, MD, JD, a board-certified Harvard and Yale-trained psychiatrist, therapist, and certified yoga teacher in New York.  She is the co-author of the Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga, and regularly contributes to Huffington Post, Psychology Today, and the Harvard Health Blog.  According to Dr. Wei, “Yoga and mind-body practices like meditation help protect you from the harmful physical and mental health effects of chronic stress.”

Dispatchers know a thing or two about chronic stress; they can feel high anxiety from the moment they log on to their CAD to the moment they log off, anywhere from 12-16 hours later.  That is a long time to experience high levels of cortisol and adrenaline, the hormones released by the body in response to a stress signal.  Although these hormones help dispatchers ignite the “fight or flight” response to stress, if they do not subside they can wreak havoc on other body systems putting dispatchers at increased risk of high blood pressure, insomnia, and digestive problems.

Yoga, meditation, and positive mindfulness are equally important as physical exercise.   They can help emergency dispatchers be more resilient to the psychological and emotional stress of the job.  These exercises will train dispatchers to be more present, thereby diminishing the strong feelings of guilt and anxiety that many dispatchers experience as a result of compulsively thinking about past calls or worrying about future calls.  If dispatchers are more self-aware of their thoughts and feelings then they can do a better job of managing their stress levels, making them healthier… and a mentally healthy dispatcher is a happy dispatcher.  Get started today by visiting Yoga Journal to find a certified yoga instructor in the area where you live.