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Editor's note: This is Part 4 of a four-part blog series on first responder mental health from Rob Martin. Read Part 1 here, read Part 2 here, and read Part 3 here

March 12, 2015, Kitchener, Ont. – There are many methods and tools studied and proven effective for building a resilient mind. Arousal control, positive self-talk, visualization, and goal setting are considered the big four when discussing mental resilience. Separately they are impactful, but when combined they are far more effective game changers.

Arousal control begins with your breath. Breathing is such a basic function of life that we often take it for granted. Yet without breath, we all know what happens . . .

Breathing properly has so many benefits that ignoring it and leaving it to the autonomic system is like taking a Formula-One car for a spin and setting it on cruise control; you miss out on epic potential. In an earlier blog I talked about awareness, and referred to being aware of your sympathetic response. Of course it’s not enough just to be aware that your heart rate has increased, your heart is contracting harder, your blood vessels are dilating in your muscles and your breath rate has increased. You need to be able to make a change, consciously, to your body’s response. This is a tremendous tool, which when applied can change your life. Yep, it’s that big!

Here’s how to get started. Find a comfortable place to sit preferably a quiet area with no distractions.

  1. Sit or stand tall lengthen your spine (no slouching)
  2. Close your eyes (optional)
  3. Begin by inhaling through your nose for a count of five seconds. If possible constrict the back of the airway so it makes noise similar to the sound of wearing a respirator. Allow your stomach to expand and draw down with the diaphragm.
  4. When you reach five seconds, hold it in for five seconds
  5. Then exhale through your nose for five seconds. Maintain the constriction to cause the respirator noise. Draw in and up on your diaphragm so you feel like you’re pressing the air out.
  6. Again, hold the exhale for five seconds, then repeat the cycle for 10 minutes.
The Navy Seals call this box breathing. In yoga, breathing with intention is called pranayama. Like everything you will get better with practice and you may even start to experiment with varying the lengths of the inhales/exhales and holds. Breathing with intention puts you in the driver’s seat of your nervous system, and gives you the choice of how you respond.

It’s no secret that positive affirmations promote successful outcomes. But did you know that the average person has over 50,000 internal thoughts per day. If we heed the experts advice, a two-to-one ratio is considered healthy self-talk. Think about that for a moment. How many of us can say we give ourselves even close to one-to-one ratio? I’m willing to bet negative thoughts start for many people from the first look in the mirror in the morning. We compare and judge ourselves constantly to the standards set by media and mega corporations who make billions off of our discontent. To change the pattern, we need to set our own standards and be conscious of any negative thoughts that counter our forward momentum. Positive self-talk is a major player in your overall happiness, but it also affects your performance. In fact, studies show that negative thinking can actually trigger fight-or-flight response. Here are some steps you can take to switch your internal dialogue.
  1. Use your new awareness and catch yourself using negative words.
  2. Live in the moment. Decide what you can do right now and do it.
  3. Create your own mantra, something that supports you and is in your own words. It might feel weird at first, that’s ok you need to learn to laugh at yourself anyway.
  4. Write and read aloud positive affirmations. Write one or two short believable messages. Repeat often.
Goal setting is a wide topic based on many variables. It can be as large as setting your own standards as mentioned earlier in positive self-talk, or it can be as small as taking one more breath. To effectively use goal setting as a resilience tool, break down the situation that is creating the stress into small steps. After you’ve set the goals, give yourself a pep talk and take time to visualize yourself successfully navigating the obstacles.

There may be times in your life when a full sympathetic response is required in order to save your life or the life of someone else. These tools will allow you to maintain situational awareness during these high-stress moments, but more importantly allow you to return to a calm, restful state after the threat is gone. It isn’t going to be simple, but daily practice and regular awareness is necessary to successfully overcome your body’s autonomic response.

Rob Martin is a captain with the Kitchener Fire Department in Ontario. He is a passionate advocate for healthy living and encourages a balanced approach where functional movement, nutrition, quiet time and fun are the fundamental building blocks for staying fit for duty. Rob is a master trainer with the Ontario Fire College, training firefighters in fire-ground survival techniques, and has attained the disaster canine search team qualification through FEMA. Rob has been trained in critical-incident stress debriefings, defusings and peer-to-peer support, and has served for more than a decade on a critical-incident stress-management team. Following the research chain for mental health led Rob to yoga, where the benefits were immediately obvious. After a couple of years of a personal practice, Rob studied to become a registered yoga teacher. Contact Rob at, find him on Facebook – Rob Martin yoga – and follow him on Twitter @fit4duty101

March 11, 2015 
By Rob Martin

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