December 2, 2022

The Upside & Downside to Adrenaline

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We’ve all had the feeling; a sudden rush of a magic-like substance gets released and everything changes. The most bizarre combination of time both slowing down and speeding up simultaneously, some images become sharper, others fade out of sight, our pain disappears, breathing gets shallow and most thoughts get pushed immediately to the side. Welcome to your basic adrenaline surge.

Perhaps you’ve experienced this when a child in your care has gone missing for a moment on the playground, or when you had a near miss while driving. The awful feeling which is replaced by relief when the child comes giggling out of the corner they were hiding in, or when the brakes on our car do what they were designed to do. You give a quick thanks to the Universe or to whatever feels right for you, and move on. 

But, if you’re a first responder or front line worker, that feeling doesn’t easily fade, nor does it last for just a moment. And the effects of it, over time, have profound impacts on both the body and mind.

What is Adrenaline?

Adrenaline is, at its most basic, a hormone which is produced by our adrenal glands. Located on top of the kidneys, these particular glands are responsible for sending out signals to our body in response to a stressful situation. We’re taught that this is the ‘fight or flight’ hormone. Sounds wonderful but what, really, does it do? 

For starters, adrenaline dilates the airway so that more oxygen is taken in for whatever comes next. Then, because it’s a downright amazing substance, it can constrict other blood vessels enabling blood to flow into the torso rather than our extremities to keep the main ‘power station’ of our body well supplied. At the same time, it’s also racing up to the brain, helping it focus so that critical decisions can be made quickly.

The perception of time is altered in such a way that can feel very distorted but it’s all in service of ensuring that necessary information is coming in and getting filtered. The soda bottle on the curb? Depending on the situation, that is either immediately dismissed or taken in as a potential threat. Very much like frames in a movie, bits and pieces of the event are laid down in the brain in such a way as to be difficult to shed them, part of what makes traumatic situations difficult to process in the hours and days following. 

When the situation has been resolved, or our involvement is no longer required, adrenaline begins to be reabsorbed by your body, to be available for the next time it’s needed. Like any hormonal response however, there are lingering effects on the other side of that response. Lightheadedness, dizziness, dry mouth, a metallic taste, shaking hands, panting, and maybe an irritability or restlessness. One of the physiological responses to the adrenaline is a release of glucose, our body’s natural energy source. If one needs to fight or flee, that glucose can be awfully handy. If it’s not needed, it leaves you a bit jittery and edgy. 

How It Works

First responders and front line workers are very familiar with these feelings and the side effects of so much adrenaline being released into the body. What many aren’t as familiar with are the longer term consequences of the repeated exposure and how to manage those feelings, thoughts and physiological responses when they begin to emerge. 

To be clear, adrenaline is a good thing; it is literally the hormone which is needed to survive. One does not head toward the sound of gunshots or into hot, smoky buildings or jump up after hours of exhausting work to manage the human wreckage of a scene most of us usually only see on TV, without it. But like everything, it comes at a cost.

What Goes Back Down

The downside to an adrenaline release is the aftermath, as mentioned earlier, often linger for at least a few hours following an incident.  It’s the longer term effects that become more troubling and difficult to manage; the vague feeling that something isn’t right, perhaps nightmares or a lingering smell that doesn’t seem willing to exit. If not addressed, these residual echos can lead to increased anxiety, the deepening of a sense of dread or concern.

For many, the anxiety feels familiar and may not be readily distinguished from the adrenaline release since the two can often have similar physical symptoms. An anxiety ‘attack’, as a period of heightened anxiety is often referred to as, will present with shortness of breath, dizziness, dry mouth, racing heart and, for some, a numbness or tingling sensation. Keeping in mind that an adrenaline release produces many of the same sensations, it becomes important to understand what’s happening and how that came to be. 

Anxiety often shows up when our brains have a hard time moving at a speed most would consider to be ‘school zone’ safe. Worry, dread, fears, worst case scenarios and unnameable wispy bits of awfulness float through the brain unchecked. One of the biggest occupational hazards of being a first responder or front line worker is that, over time, there isn’t too much that hasn’t been seen so what is unthinkable for many becomes very real for those who have managed those scenes. 

While some of us might be concerned about Big Foot walking through our campsite, it’s a fear that we can usually dismiss after a good chuckle and reminder that the large object we see is really the beach towel on the drying line that we forgot to take down before the wind blew it onto a nearby branch. Chuckle over, towel returned to being a towel and on one goes with their evening. But when anxiety is running the show it may take more to get to the other side of that feeling and to slow the thoughts back down. 

7 Tips for Management

Here are some suggestions for how to manage both the long term impact of adrenaline releases and anxiety which has dug in a bit deeper than you’d like.

Tip #1: Be sure to keep your body well supplied with the building blocks of good physiological functioning. In plain terms that means making sure you’re eating good, nutritious food. Fresh fruit, vegetables, grains, seeds and fish, if you like. While it might sound more ‘granola’ then you’d care for, these foods have all the component pieces that our bodies need to build the hormones, enzymes and neurotransmitters we need to stay healthy. Not convinced? That’s OK. Literally every single bit that you can take in, helps. Want more info? This is sometimes referred to as the Mediterranean diet; you can google it and get some amazing recipes and ideas.

Tip #2: Move your body. Outside if possible. This does not have to be anything fancy. There is serious science to this (and all these suggestions) which tells us that connecting to nature allows our brains to slow down, heal and get some much needed rest. A walk in the park, even a city street where you notice the way a peregrine falcon is in that scrawny tree at the corner, are good ways to connect with the environment. And yes, I’m often that person looking up the falcon in the tree as others walk by completely unaware of its existence.

Tip #3: Move your body, part 2. This might mean getting some yoga in or participating in martial arts or climbing a rock wall at your local gym. The movement combined with the social aspects are helpful too.

Tip #4: Get serious about your sleep hygiene. Sleep is the body’s time to restore both mentally and physically. Getting into and keeping a sleeping routine will go a long way to manage any number of insults our bodies withstand on our behalf. 

Tip #5: Practice breathing and/or mindfulness and meditation. Before you roll your eyes please know that even 30 seconds of focused breathing can lower your heart rate, slow down the anxious thoughts and start the healing. Don’t have 30 seconds? 10 seconds will be more than enough to allow you to slow down a bubbling panic, which is just enough space for training, experience or the words of your mentor to come to mind.

Tip #6: Reality test. Talk to others to find out if they thought that beach towel looked scary, or if that situation kicked up feelings for them too. The sooner you give up the idea that you’ve got to do this alone or that no one else has felt the way you feel, the better. 

Tip #7: Build your support network. This isn’t about making sure you only hang out with those who are also on the job; it’s about finding your people who can support you and be present with you for both the chuckles and the not so great days. 

And Finally

Adrenaline and anxiety are part of the work many of us do and can’t be denied. Learning how to identify what’s going on and what it means for you personally, is the beginning of learning how to manage its impact on you. There may come a time when it’s useful to bring in outside, professional help to work with you on designing a strategy for both healing and long term management. And for the record, the time to bring in that professional help is likely now. The sooner you start the process, the sooner that person becomes your person.

The advantage of getting your ‘person’ or team in place sooner rather than later is that you can start to live a life not dragged down by consequences which could be mitigated, if addressed sooner. Whew, that was a run-on sentence if ever there was one. I suspect you get the point however; you deserve a wonderful life.

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