I have been sitting on this blog topic for while and have been itching to share it with you for the past few months. After working in emergency management for a few years, we start to figure out how we personally operate in the activation environment. As humans, we all operate in high stress environments differently and cope through good and bad habits.
I have known my good (and bad) stress habits for a while, but my bad habits didn’t hit me hard until my first IMT deployment this year. While the experience was extremely rewarding, the lack of action to correct my bad stress habits came back to bite me. This was very clear based on how I felt after my deployment was over for the first few days after returning. Lack of proper nutrition, hydration, sleep, and emotional processing hit me all at once and it took me the rest of the week to reset and prepare to return to daily duties again. Even after returning, I still felt a mode of burnout for several weeks. While some of this involved processing the event and how I felt personally about it, a majority of it was due to a lack of focus to fix bad stress habits that I have known about for years! I hope to share these with you so that you can check yourself and avoid running yourself down during your next incident. Our career is a marathon, not a sprint!
1. Skipping Meals or Eating Poorly
Guilty as charged! When my life gets hectic (or I am busy and stressed in an EOC), I tend to overly focus on the tasks I need to get done. This causes my brain to ignore my basic needs. I actually do not physically feel hungry in this type of stress environment, even if I have not eaten for the day. While I used to be able to get away with this in short-term special event or storm activations, it absolutely took a toll for a multiple day deployment. While I had a variety of snacks (dry cereal, granola bars, protein shakes), these did not hold up well over time.
Even if you aren’t hungry, try to take some time to step out of the EOC or command post and eat more wholesome foods. Foods with vitamins and nutrients are dense and will help you stay refreshed and less beat up after the activation. If you continue to struggle to eat during your operational period, definitely take the time when you leave to refuel before you return back for the next scheduled operational period.
2. Skipping Sleep
Sleeping during stressful times can be a huge challenge! It is hard to unplug when you are worried about the consequences of the incident, especially if it impacts your loved ones, friends, or community members. Skimping out on sleep may work for the first few days, but it will hit you all at once later!
Try to clear your mind as soon as you get off of your operational period. Create a routine that works well for you. Ideas include hygiene practices (warm shower), stretching, fitness/yoga/walk, meditation, reading, or non-work related hobbies. During your free operational periods, try to stick to a routine the best you can, even if you are working nights and sleeping days. To better sleep during the day, you may want to reach out to those who are used to shiftwork for advice. Another idea is to try to black out the room the best you can and follow your bedtime routine as much as possible despite it being bedtime hours. Lastly, let your friends and family know that you are working odd hours and that you may need to be left undisturbed during your sleep time. This may be hard (especially for those with children or other duties), but it is hard to sleep if you are getting calls/texts at times you are trying to rest.
3. Not Staying Hydrated
Truth is — I am terrible about this even during non-stressful times. Yikes! This no-no aligns with the food habit in the sense that my brain needs extra reminders to stay hydrated and to drink water when I get stressed and busy. During this activation, I did bring water (and caffeine) to drink. Trouble is, it stayed on my desk the entire time. I felt very dehydrated after the activation.
If you must, try to set alarm reminders on your watch or phone to drink water! Develop a schedule to drink water after planning meetings, briefings, or other activation tasks. Sip on water when you head to the restroom or when you step out for occasional mental breaks. You can also put a sticky note on your computer or workspace to remind you to drink up!
4. Putting Everything On Hold
When I am dealing with monitoring severe weather or an activation, I typically focus on that and place EVERYTHING else on hold until that threat or activation is over. This seems helpful to me in the moment as it allows me to focus on the task at hand and the items I am the most concerned about. However, it turns into a more stressful situation later as I feel VERY behind on EVERYTHING else when I wrap up my activation time.
- *IF* possible, try to still finish essential tasks before the activation or during the small amounts of free time you may have around the activation tasks or operational period assignments. Focusing on some of these tasks can refresh your mind and give you a break from the incident. It also helps you feel good about yourself as you are still completing personal tasks that need to get done! Most importantly, you are also taking care of YOU.
- If you are absolutely swamped and cannot put any effort or energy into any these tasks, try to reach out to friends, family, or supporters to delegate these tasks until you are ready to take them on. Your loved ones will be more than happy to step up and help when they know how hard you are working to help other people. Don’t be afraid to ask for help!
- If you are super swamped and these tasks are not the kind to be able to be delegated (rescheduling appointments, personal errands, needs), try making a list and adding to it as you think of items that need to be worked on after the activation or deployment. This allows your brain to have a place to put it down, and it can also put you at ease about any fears of forgetting to do something important.
5. Processing Emotions
This is a heavy one! We respond and work a variety of incident types with unique impacts and emotional challenges. Some incidents feel rather personal to us, while others might not. For the incidents that hit home a little too directly, never feel afraid to talk to someone DURING your activation or deployment rather than waiting for the response to be over. I typically focus on the tasks to complete and think about the emotional impact later. This works well until the work is completed and there is nothing else to do but think about the emotions that were stuffed down previously. It is important to be able to process these feelings in a healthy way before returning back to normal operations or work.
- Talk to family, friends, or trusted colleagues about how you feel and your emotions when you feel ready to. If you feel like you need to chat after your shift and before the next one, reach out! Your support network loves you and wants to support you through your stressful experiences.
- Journaling is a great way to express yourself and your feelings. This can work during your activation or on your off-time. You may also want to journal if you will not have time to chat with anyone immediately, but want to record your initial thoughts or feelings and how they progress through the incident.
- Reach out to an expert if you need to! Mental health is so important, and ignoring it and not dealing with trauma can lead to larger issues down the road. Check out local CISM or coping resources brought in for personnel if offered at the incident. Look up some of the disaster distress hotlines. You can also use work resources (such as Employees Assistance Program — EAP) and speak to a counselor or therapist after the incident. Mental health experts can ask the right questions and help you complete thought exercises to allow you to process and understand your emotions related to the deployment.
Have you noticed yourself doing any of these stress habits? Which items resonate with you the most? Any items not on the list that you would like to share?
We say it all the time in the field — but you really cannot take care of others if you do not take care of yourself! Your care is the ultimate priority. Win the race. Don’t collapse before the finish line.