Health & Wellness: How Firefighters Can Manage Stress

Feb. 1, 2016

Firefighting is cited as one of the most stressful occupations. Indeed, occupational stress is inherent to this job. However, the long-term effects of unmanaged stress can have detrimental effects on firefighters’ health. Stress can negatively affect the mind, body, mood and behavior. The human body was designed to respond to stress, but not made to have a continuously aroused stress response.  Chronic stress that's left unchecked can contribute to mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, as well as physical health problems, such as high blood pressure and a weakened immune system. Chronic stress has also been shown to lead to job dissatisfaction and subsequent burnout. If firefighters are able to recognize common symptoms of stress within themselves, then they will be able to better combat the negative effects.

Impact on mental health

Everyone encounters stress in their work and personal lives. People often argue that stress can be helpful in various ways (e.g., motivation). This can be true, depending on the frequency, intensity and duration of stress. Short-term stress can ignite our “Fight-or-Flight” response. As a firefighter, this stress tends to be a staple on shift and can give that adrenaline rush on calls, but at what point does stress become bad?

Unfortunately, there is not a big red side-effect label on stress, so when firefighters feel common signs of stress, such as anxiousness, irritability, nervousness or even experience memory and concentration impairments, stress may not seem like the obvious culprit. And as noted, chronic stress can lead to mental health problems, such as depression and anxiety. Not only does stress impact mental health with mood changes, but it can have lasting effects on the brain. Chronic stress that is not properly managed releases cortisol, which can alter the brain’s structure and cause damage over a long period of time.

Impact on physical health

Stress can manifest itself not only mentally but also physically. Firefighters face physically grueling challenges on the job, from transporting patients to climbing flights of stairs while wearing bunker gear. The physical abilities that a firefighter needs to have in order to perform at optimum level can be greatly affected by stress. Some of the common physical symptoms of stress include dizziness, headaches, grinding teeth or clenched jaws, gastrointestinal problems (e.g., indigestion, nausea), muscle tension, difficulty sleeping, excess fatigue, racing heart, weight fluctuation and changes in appetite. Over time, symptoms of stress can deteriorate the physical health of firefighters by weakening the immune system leading to more sick days and, in the long term, contributing to muscular pain, heart disease, obesity and diabetes.


Stress is part of the job, but it can become detrimental if not properly addressed. The numerous mental and physical health problems that stress causes make it vital for firefighters to take part in self-care. If firefighters are able to notice common signs and symptoms of stress in themselves, then they can take the necessary steps to de-stress. Common maladaptive ways people de-stress include overeating or using alcohol, tobacco or other substances. There are healthier alternatives. So what can firefighters do to manage the mental and physical stress of the job?

Identify Triggers: Recognizing what triggers your unique stress response is the first step to managing your stress. Although you can try to avoid these triggers, some may be unavoidable. Therefore, finding positive coping mechanisms to deal with unavoidable stress is the next best thing.

Healthy Nutrition: Remember to hydrate and eat a healthy balanced diet (e.g., lean meats, fruits and vegetables). Reach for a banana the next time you feel stressed, as potassium can help regulate blood pressure, which can be elevated during stress. Drinking plenty of water is important to flush out the stress-related toxins in your body. The right food will give you the proper energy to tackle whatever challenges may come your way.

Physical Activity: Get physical exercise, whether it be a game of basketball, running, swimming, cycling or even just taking the dog for a walk. The endorphins released can rid the body of toxins to help fight stress.  

Muscle Relaxation/Breathing Exercises: Yoga may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it does have a long list of benefits to help the body physically unwind. Even if yoga isn’t on your to-do list, simple breathing exercises have been shown to balance carbon dioxide and oxygen in the body to help mentally and physically restore the body.

Sleeping Habits: Making sure you are getting a quality nights rest is very important. During sleep the body repairs itself, so a lack of quantity and quality of sleep can lead the body to be unable to fight the stressors of the day. Habits like staying away from caffeine and other stimulants before going to bed and creating a cool, calm and dark sleeping environment will help program your body to dial down before sleep. Adopting healthy sleep hygiene habits can help combat stress.  

Humor: Laughing has shown to have numerous benefits including stress release. Laughing can physically and mentally change the way your body reacts to stress including boosting your immune system, stimulating organs, reducing tension and improving overall mood.

Treat yourself: Take time to engage in activates that you enjoy, whether they be by yourself or with a group of friends. Taking part in hobbies or activities that you enjoy allows for the mind and body to concentrate on something other than what is causing you stress.

In sum

If you feel you are struggling with stress, please seek help from a medical practitioner or a mental health professional. Also, there may be departmental resources through your Employee Assistance Program or outside organizations that are available. See the sidebar for additional resources that may be helpful if you are struggling with stress.  



Internet resources

FireStrong ( This website is independently owned and has resources for firefighters and their family members in the areas of mental, physical and emotional support. They also have tools and resources as well as peer support services.   

Smartphone applications

SleepBot—Smart Cycle Alarm with Motion & Sound Tracker: This app is a sleep tracker that records your movements and sounds throughout the night. It has the ability to track your sleep over time and sleep quality over time so you are better able to make changes to your sleep habits. It also comes with ambient sounds to help you fall asleep.

Lose It! Weight Loss Program and Calorie Counter: This app helps you reach your weight-loss goals by tracking your meals, exercise and calories. It has as a built in scanner and a search database that helps you keep track of your calories consumed.

Cardio—Heart Rate Monitor + Workout Routines: This app measures your heart rate, gives you exercises to incorporate into your workout routine, and get your fitness level based upon your heart rate.

Stop, Breathe & Think: Meditation guide that teaches you meditation skills and gives you exercises depending on how you are feeling.

About the Author

Todd J. LeDuc

Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, CEM, MIFirE is a division chief and 26-year veteran of Broward County Fire Rescue in Florida, an accredited department of over 700 personnel. Chief LeDuc is a board member for the IAFC Safety Health & Survival Section and a peer reviewer for chief officer credentialing and agency accreditation. He teaches fire and public administration graduate programs for Anna Maria College (AMC) and is on the editorial board for the IAFC's On-Scene publication. He lecturers and publishes frequent on fire service topics and received the 2013 IAFC Gary Briese Safety Award and Center for Public Safety Excellence's Ambassador Award. He can be reached at [email protected].

About the Author

Sarah Henderson

Sarah Henderson is a clinical psychology (Psy.D.) candidate at Nova Southeastern University Center for Psychological Studies. She received her bachelor’s in psychology from Stetson University. Her interests are in trauma and violence with a focus on posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) within first responders, specifically, the effects of PTSD on chronic physical and mental health conditions, including sleep disorders, substance use and suicide.

About the Author

Estefania Masias

Estefania Masias is a clinical psychology (Psy.D.) candidate at Nova Southeastern University Center for Psychological Studies. She received her bachelor’s in criminology and psychology from Florida State University. Her interests are in forensics, trauma and first responder populations.

About the Author

Judy Couwels

Judy Couwels has been employed at the Broward Sheriff’s Office since November 1990 as the manager of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). She works with the Hostage Negotiation Team as the mental health consultant, provides team training and partners with the Nova Southeastern University to facilitate learning opportunities for graduate students. Couwels has bachelor’s in psychology from Pennsylvania State University and a master’s in marriage and family therapy from Syracuse University. She is a licensed marriage and family therapist, currently the state wide training director for Florida Association for Hostage Negotiators (FAHN) and is the president of the South Florida Chapter for EAPA (Employee Assistance Professional Association).

About the Author

Vincent Van Hasselt

Vincent Van Hasselt, Ph.D., is professor of psychology and criminal justice, and director of the Family Violence Program at Nova Southeastern University. He is also a certified police officer with the Plantation, FL, Police Department where he is training coordinator of the Crisis Response Team. Dr. Van Hasselt serves as a consultant to the FBI’s Behavioral Science, Crisis Negotiation, and Employee Assistance Units, and is team psychologist for the FBI Miami Hostage Negotiation Unit. Over the past 15 years, he has been a lecturer at the FBI National Academy on the topics of critical incident stress management and stress and mental health issues in law enforcement personnel and their families. A licensed clinical psychologist, Dr. Van Hasselt maintained, for many years, a private practice specializing in the problems of emergency first responders.

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