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Overcoming Stress: A guide for 9-1-1 dispatchers
Author: Sarah Lyall
Copyright: Copyright 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content,
Photo: R.D. Larson
Some dispatchers have the amazing ability to go through day after day of hearing the cries for help from their fellow citizens without becoming overwhelmed or completely stressed to their limits. These dispatchers are not superhuman nor are they devoid of feelings. What sets them apart from their more stressed counterparts is the fact that they have been able to establish a positive balance between their work and their lives.
Many people, who have been unable to create the healthful work- life balance that everyone strives for, have tried decreasing their stress levels by getting themselves mentally pumped up to go into work. According to Garret Kramer, founder and managing partner of Inner-Sports, LLC, “trying to get geared up will only rev up your thinking.” Dealing with any type of situation requires having a clear mind. Also, says Kramer, “when one is trying to pump themselves up, they are buying into the thought that they were not ready to begin with.”
Everyone has good days and bad days in their lives. On a good day people experience less stress than they do on a bad day. According to Kramer, environmental and personal factors have a direct bearing on how an individual perceives would be stressful situations. For example, if a dispatcher is sick or has just received bad news, they are already feeling low. Therefore, when that dispatcher receives a particularly taxing call, they will automatically react to it in a negative way. Alternatively, if a dispatcher is feeling well and is in a good mood when they receive that same taxing call; they are more likely to look at the situation positively. Instead of having their mood lowered by the call, they might think to themselves “wow, I have been instrumental in helping someone through a tough situation and I feel good about that.” The key is realizing that the outside world has no ability to control anyone.
When dispatchers realize the impact of their environment on how they perceive the world, they are in a position to regain control of their lives. Kramer uses the example of an elevator going from the basement to the penthouse to describe how ones mood can vary throughout the day, thus affecting their ability to cope with stress. Therefore, in order to create a healthful work-life balance one has to become mindful of his or her own environment and how that environment affects the amount of stress they perceive from day to day.
Establishing a work-life balance may seem like a difficult task for those who have not attempted to do so, but according to Dr. Eric Plasker, a health and wellness expert who founded the Stress Less America Campaign, “thinking about making a change is harder than actually making a change.”
For those dispatchers who are going to work every day feeling stressed and who are taking that stress home with them, there is hope. Dealing with stress is difficult, but taking back control over stress requires only minimal effort. Once you have made the decision to start changing your life, the first thing you need to do is to face your stressors head on. When you are taking a call that is particularly stressful, you need to remain one hundred percent in the present and treat the caller as if they are the only person in the world who matters. When the call is over, however, you need to make a conscious effort to let it go. Dr. Plasker uses the example of a tree growing inside of a person who is stressed. If you continue to let the seed of stress grow inside of you, eventually it will become so large that it will overwhelm you and you will become sick. Instead of focusing on the stress that you are experiencing in a given day, you should focus on the long term view of your life.
Dr. Plasker points out that people who have lived to be a hundred or older are the fastest growing segment of the population, at a rate of seven hundred and forty-six percent growth. These people have lived through twenty-one recessions and the Great Depression. The moral of the story, you are probably going to make it through whatever is causing you to be stressed at the moment. Dr. Plasker often asks people to look back over their lives for the past twenty-five years. Was there something that you went through that seemed difficult at the time but later turned out to be a blessing? Chances are you have experienced an unplanned pregnancy, the loss of a job, or some other crisis situation that seemed awful at the time, but looking back you would not have it any other way. Trying to look for and uncover the hidden blessings in your current stressful situations can be helpful in reducing the amount of stress you are experiencing.
The second step toward letting go of stress is changing your thought patterns. “Know that you are good, but you are not God,” says Dr. Plasker. You can only do what you are capable of doing at any given time. For example, if bad calls normally lead you to think thoughts such as ‘Oh my goodness, that situation was terrible and the world is terrible,’ you might consciously change your thoughts to sound a little more like this, ‘That was a terrible situation, but I am glad that I had the chance to make a difference in someone’s life.’ Consciously adjusting your thought patterns may not seem natural at first, but if you continue to stop your bad thoughts as soon as you recognize them, and change them to good thoughts, you will eventually establish a habit of doing so. Even if you do not feel that you have done your best work with a certain caller, you should still work to change your thought patterns for the best.
Dr. Plasker uses a sports analogy to illustrate this point. “If an NFL quarterback throws an interception, he does not have time to dwell on his mistake. The quarterback has to clear his head of negative thoughts and get back in the game,” just like a dispatcher who does not feel like they have done as well as they could have in handling a particular call.
Another important thing for dispatchers to realize is that stress is a natural reaction that takes place in the nervous system, but this reaction can be moderated. Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist, physical therapist, and author of the bestselling book A Happy You: Your Ultimate Prescription for Happiness, says that dispatchers should practice deep breathing throughout their shifts, due to the fact that research shows diaphragmatic breathing can reduce stress and its negative consequences. Also, working in some exercise during one’s shift is an excellent way to reduce stress. Dr. Lombardo suggests using bathroom breaks as a time to stretch your legs by taking the stairs to use the bathroom on a different floor or to do push-ups or jumping jacks at your workstation. Bottom line, to reduce stress you have to incorporate some form of physical activity into your life. Extra points if the activity you decide to incorporate is dancing. According to Dr. Lombardo, research shows that dancing can reduce stress and improve your mood.
Any type of self care activities that you include in your life outside of work will help reduce the amount of stress that you experience while on the job. Dr. Lombardo refers to an old airline adage, “put your own oxygen mask on first.” What this means is that you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of other people. Getting enough sleep is very important to maintaining a healthy life balance as is eating healthful foods and making sure that you include personal time for yourself each day. During the personal time that you have set aside for yourself, even if it is only five or ten minutes, Dr. Lombardo recommends focusing on at least three positive things you did that day or three things that happened that day to make you feel grateful. For these lists, you can focus on your job or your personal life. Keep your lists in a journal that you can look back on when you are going through a period of intense stress. Also adds Dr. Kramer, dispatchers should make time for activities they enjoy outside of work such as reading good books, watching their favorite television shows, engaging in conversations with supportive friends, or by doing anything else that helps them to feel relaxed and comfortable.
“Taking time to evaluate whether or not working as a dispatcher is your true calling in life is also important” says Dr. Lombardo, “it is well documented that people who view their work as their calling in life have less stress and greater happiness.” You should take the time to stop and really appreciate what it is that you are doing for society. You are providing a great service to your community and you should feel good about that.
Instead of thinking about going to work each day, think about going out to make a contribution to society each day. When you take the time to recognize the importance of your work, it becomes easier for you to not personalize the problems that you encounter during each work day. For instance, Dr. Lombardo says that if a co-worker, superior, or a caller becomes hateful with you, you should empathize with that person and realize that no matter what the outcome of the situation is everything will be okay. Even if you have a bad day, or a bad call, you have to forgive yourself. You would not have been concerned about having a bad call if you did not care about the people you were serving. Pat yourself on the back for giving everything you had, at that particular moment in time, to the person on the other end of the call.
One final way to reduce stress is to create something that you can look forward to doing whenever your shift ends. According to Dr. Lombardo, having something to look forward to can make the stress of any assignment seem less overwhelming. For example, if you love relaxing in a hot bath with a magazine and a class of wine, make a point of doing it at least once or twice a week. If a vacation is more your idea of relaxation, make a point to plan at least some aspects of your dream trip every week. Extra points if you actually start setting aside some money periodically so you can actually take the trip of your dreams. Anything that makes you happy can be used as incentive to help you get through the work day.
Most everyone has experienced at least some level of stress during their lifetime. Luckily, stress is easily managed with the simple lifestyle changes mentioned in this article. If you feel overwhelmed by all the anti-stress strategies mentioned above, take the time to implement at least one of the anti-stress strategies each week for the next several weeks. In no time, you will become more energized, more in control, and less stressed.
Sarah Lyall holds a B.A. in psychology from The University of Virginia's College at Wise and is currently pursuing a M.A. in counseling from Radford University in Virginia. She has been a freelance writer for two years, specializing in topics related to mental health