The dictionary defines stress as “a state of mental or emotional strain or tension resulting from adverse or very demanding circumstances.” By that definition, fishing as a profession can be very stressful. Being away from families for extended periods of time, limited interactions while out at sea, the cold environment, and even boredom can all lead to increased stress.
Stress triggers certain automatic responses in the body. Faced with a threat, the body floods itself with hormones that elevate the heart rate; increases blood pressure and boosts energy levels, all of which prepares it to deal with whatever the threat might be. That’s great in the short term. Stress can make us more focused, increase our alertness and concentration. Stress turns into a health problem, however, when there is too much of it and it lasts too long. The longer the stress lasts, the worse it is for both your mind and your body. A person will begin to feel tired or irritable for no good reason. And chronic stress can cause real harm to your health over time.
Some individuals may turn to cigarettes, drugs or alcohol as ways to cope with too much stress. Though these may feel as if they help, they actually can be harmful. Additionally, winter is a time when some are more likely to abuse drugs or drink excessively due to darkness or isolation.
Alcohol consumption has consequences when done to excess. Between 2006 and 2010 in Maine, alcohol use was the cause of 489 deaths. Alcohol was also associated with 491 deaths from 2003 to 2012 in Maine motor vehicle accidents involving a drunk driver. Alcohol can affect us all differently, and what is normal use for one person can be excessive for another.
Excessive drinking or binge drinking is often defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women on the same occasion. Depending on your weight, this amount of alcohol can result in a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.08 grams per deciliter of blood. It is against the law in Maine to drive with a BAC of 0.08 What you are drinking — hard liquor, wine or beer — can influence your blood alcohol level. A “standard drink” is generally defined as a 12-ounce can of beer (5% alcohol), an 8-ounce bottle of malt liquor (7% alcohol), a 5-ounce glass of wine (12% alcohol) or a 1.5-ounce shot of liquor (40% alcohol, 80 proof).
Some effects of alcohol to keep in mind this winter:
- Alcohol decreases reaction time, judgment and inhibitions; can lead to reckless decision-making.
- Initially alcohol acts as a stimulant but over time quickly becomes a depressant.
- Alcohol use can lead to poorly controlled behavior and aggression or violence.
- After drinking stops, alcohol in the stomach continues to enter the blood and cause impairment for hours; effects are masked but not reduced with coffee or stimulant use.
- Alcohol can make you feel warmer by increasing blood flow along the skin and outer parts of the body, but actually cools your body core.
Some tips for responsible use:
- To avoid hypothermia it is important to wear a coat outside while consuming alcohol, even if you feel warm.
- Consume non-alcoholic drinks with alcohol – they can help counteract dehydration.
- Eat while you drink – food can help slow alcohol absorption and avoid stomach upset.
- Use designated drivers, taxis and ride-sharing to get home safely.
Drugs can also have dangerous consequences if not used correctly. In 2016 Maine experienced 301 opioid-related overdose deaths resulting in the 10th-highest mortality rate in the nation. Opioids — substances that are chemically similar to heroin — are a type of prescription drug used to treat pain. They are commonly abused to deal with stress and can be highly addictive. Opioids interact with parts of the brain involved with feeling pain and pleasure. In the short-term, opioids can relieve pain and give a feeling of relaxation and happiness but they can also cause drowsiness, confusion, nausea, constipation, slowed breathing, coma, brain damage and death. Older adults are at higher risk for the severe and deadly effects of opioid overdose. These effects are also increased when opioids are used while consuming alcohol. Opioids and other prescription drugs should only be used at the direction of a physician; even if taken as prescribed, they can still lead to addiction and substance use disorders.
Here are some coping strategies for dealing with stress that you can use while out at sea:
- Maintain a positive attitude. Only you can control your attitude. Strive to stay positive even when others aren’t. Replace negative thoughts with positive thoughts.
- Limit alcohol use. Alcohol can interfere greatly with the quality of sleep you get. Although some people will indulge in a “nightcap” before bed, alcohol actually keeps one from getting to the deeper stages of sleep necessary for a good night’s sleep. This can cause one to be easily irritated the next day even by small things.
- Avoid drug abuse. Only take prescription medications as prescribed by your physician. Do not share your medication with others or take someone else’s prescription.
- Share a laugh with a friend or co-worker. Humor can instantaneously relieve stress.
- Practice breathing. When feeling stressed out, take nice deep breaths and slowly exhale. Count to 10 slowly. Repeat as necessary.
- Do your best. Focus on the task at hand and take pride in your work!
- Avoid boredom. During your downtime when not sleeping, engage in activities to keep your mind active. Have a good book or portable movies available. Learn a new language.
- Your co-worker may face the same life challenges that you might be dealing with. Having someone to talk to who understands you can help decrease stress.
Finally, if you feel constantly overwhelmed, please seek advice from a medical professional. We all need help from someone else from time to time. A medical professional not only can help with other coping strategies but may also screen for any underlying medical condition that could be causing stress.