Fighting More Than Fires

Eating disorders are particularly prevalent in high-stress jobs, making firefighters at increased risk. (Photo by Pixabay.)
Eating disorders are particularly prevalent in high-stress jobs, making firefighters at increased risk. (Photo by Pixabay.)

Dr. Nicola Davies, health psychologist and coauthor of Eating Disorder Recovery Handbook: A Practical Guide to Long-Term Recovery, outlines how firefighters can be affected by eating disorders and how to overcome them.

Eating disorders are psychological conditions whereby the person possesses a distorted body image and has an obsessive desire to lose weight or maintain an unhealthy weight. Some examples of eating disorders are anorexia (starvation and/or extreme exercising), bulimia (laxative abuse and self-induced vomiting or fasting after eating), and binge eating (overeating within short periods of time). Eating disorders are commonly associated with young people and women, but these conditions can affect anyone regardless of age, gender, or profession. Indeed, eating disorders are particularly prevalent in high-stress jobs, making firefighters at increased risk.

Stress, anxiety, and trauma can lead to the development and maintenance of eating disorders, with food and weight preoccupation becoming a way of coping. For firefighters, where emergency situations are frequent and there can be irregular work hours, experiencing stress, anxiety, depression, trauma, and other forms of psychological distress can be common. Furthermore, research suggests that any traumatic event that produces even partial symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder or clinically significant anxiety can also increase the risk of developing an eating disorder.

Some of the factors that might lead to the development and maintenance of eating disorders in firefighters include the following:

  • Security: Eating disorders can provide a false sense of security because of the focus on strict rules and routines around food; this need for a sense of security may be more apparent in high-stress professions.
  • Avoidance: Eating disorders can distract you from dealing with negative emotions and traumatic experiences.
  • Self-confidence: The use of extreme dieting or exercising as a way of feeling worthy of others’ attention. This can be exacerbated by the “ripped” image of firefighter calendar models that creates a glorified and unrealistic standard.

Binge Eating Because Of Sleep Deprivation

What can also go largely unnoticed is the incidence of binge eating behaviors among firefighters. During the summer, when the incidence of fires is high, firefighters often lack sleep because of the volume of emergency calls. Budget cuts force firefighters to work longer shifts, which often results in disturbed sleeping patterns. The subsequent tiredness may be overcompensated for by eating big meals or by snacking on high-energy foods.

Disturbed sleeping patterns can also inhibit the production of the hormone leptin, which triggers satiety or the feeling of fullness after a meal. Insufficient levels of leptin in the blood can cause firefighters to overeat and oversnack because they don’t feel sufficiently full.

When sleeping patterns are disturbed, this can result in the brain needing extra stimulation, increasing cravings for high-sugar and fatty snacks. These types of foods stimulate the pleasure centers of the brain and give a much-needed boost in energy levels and alertness as well as make us feel better in the short term. This is why high-sugar and high-fat snacks can be so addictive, especially for shift workers.

The Dangers of Eating Disorders in Firefighters

Firefighting personnel must possess physical stamina and fitness; social skills to work efficiently with their team; technical knowledge to operate firefighting equipment; and the ability to remain calm and take control of their own fears despite being in dangerous, confusing, or traumatic situations.

However, eating disorders can be a hurdle to performing your best at work. Firefighters need to be strong in every capacity when going into emergency situations, but the impact of either starvation or overeating can severely impact the mind and body, preventing the organs from receiving adequate nutrition and rest. Lacking physical power and mental alertness can lead to lags in decision making and a reduced confidence and sense of self-awareness, which places the lives of the firefighter, members of the first responder teams, and victims at risk.

Given these life-threatening risks, it is important for you to be honest with yourself if you have, or suspect you have, an eating disorder. The first step to breaking free from an eating disorder is to acknowledge that you may be affected by one. Take the time to consider the following indicators of an eating disorder, being totally honest with yourself in terms of whether you can relate to any of them:

  • You are eating and snacking more or tend to eat and drink more when you are alone.
  • You eat more when you’re bored or when you’re tired, anxious, or sad.
  • You prefer prepackaged “comfort” food that is easy to buy and store, easy to hide, and easy to eat.
  • You sometimes eat huge amounts of food and have no recollection of it because you were doing something else such as watching TV or surfing the Internet.
  • Extremely strong emotions underlie your reasons for eating or not eating, the frequency of eating, and the amount and kinds of food eaten.
  • The act of eating is an automatic reflex action performed without focusing or thinking about what food is being eaten or how much is consumed.
  • Eating or not eating has become an activity that soothes, comforts, or distracts you from strong emotions or low mood, at least in the short term.
  • You are preoccupied with food and try to avoid it even when you are hungry for fear of becoming overweight.
  • You feel sick and disgusted after eating and feel that you have lost control of the situation.
  • You try to compensate for what you eat by vomiting, taking laxatives, or overexercising.

If you can relate to any of these, you have an unhealthy relationship with food. If you can relate to them all, then it is almost certain that you do have an eating disorder.

Recovering from an Eating Disorder

Recovery does not happen by simply eating more or less food. Eating disorders must be dealt with from a holistic perspective, where the physical, emotional, mental, and social aspects of the person are considered. Here, it can help to find an understanding of the development and motivations behind your eating disorder so that you can address these specific triggers.

Overcoming an eating disorder cannot be done in a vacuum. Other than support from loved ones and colleagues, individuals affected by eating disorders also need the help of health professionals. Some of the common treatments prescribed to people with an eating disorder include the following:

  • Counseling: A trained professional applies psychological knowledge, theories, and techniques to help you cope with the distress that underlies your eating disorder.
  • Nutritional support: A trained nutrition expert examines your dietary requirements so that you can develop a better understanding of your need for specific foods and nutrients to aid your recovery.
  • Cognitive analytical therapy: This therapy focuses on exploring any personal experiences that may be contributing to your eating disorders to help you adopt better coping mechanisms.
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy: This is an approach that explores the link between feelings, thoughts, and actions, helping you to change your thinking in a way that might also lead to a change in disordered eating behaviors.
  • Mirror therapy: Using exposure to a mirror to incrementally ease and overcome some of the negative thoughts and emotions you might have about your body image.
  • Art therapy: Creative exercises to help your resolve conflict and personal problems, create self-awareness, manage behavior, and reduce anxiety and stress.
  • Animal therapy: Spending time with therapy animals or pets to destress and become more grounded and self-aware.
  • Writing: Expressing your thoughts and feelings through writing rather than disordered eating. Examples include keeping a diary or food journal. Even writing letters to yourself or others (but not necessarily sending them) has been found to facilitate emotional expression, which is an important component of eating disorder recovery.

Eating Disorders Are Everyone’s Responsibility

Knowledge about eating disorders can be extremely useful for fire department chiefs and supervisors who need to be able to identify members of their staff who may be at risk of developing them. By recognizing the risks of anxiety and stress on the eating patterns of firefighters, department heads will see the importance of emphasizing adequate nutrition, physical training, and work-life balance.

Firefighters must be holistically fit to perform their job. Acknowledging that you may be suffering from an eating disorder and reaching out for support is not a weakness but a strength. It is looking after yourself and also looking out for those who rely on you to be the best you can be in your work.

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October 2017
Volume 12, Issue 10