Building Resiliency

Building Resiliency

What is resiliency?

Resiliency is the ability to recover and adapt well from stressful events. Experts view it as a skill that you can practice and develop, rather than an innate trait. Resilience doesn’t mean that you won’t experience adverse events and stress in your life, but it gives you the skills to effectively cope with trauma. Resiliency is an important teaching of positive psychology. You can build resilience by practicing mindfulness, getting better sleep, facilitating connections, and being active. 

Positive psychology... [focuses] on strengths as well as weaknesses, on building the best things in life as well as repairing the worst. It asserts that human goodness and excellence is just as authentic as distress and disorder, that life is more than the undoing of problems.

Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness is simply taking time to connect with your present experiences and thoughts. Mindfulness means rerouting your focus to the present moment, rather than worrying about what's already passed or what's yet to come. It is a form of connecting with your body and environment. In mindfulness, you can focus on your internal environment by engaging in breathing exercises or body scans, or you can focus on the external environment by taking time to intentionally notice the world around you.

Focusing on one thing may be a good end goal, but so much of our training is rooted in being able to take in many things and process them during emergencies. Other thoughts are bound to arise while practicing mindfulness. Don’t beat yourself up if it’s difficult to turn that impulse off. Just recognize additional thoughts as they arise and file them away to address later, just as you would a non-life-threatening injury during a primary assessment or a bystander at an arrest.

How do you practice mindfulness?

When people think of mindfulness, the first thing many think of is classic breathing exercises. This is one way to practice mindfulness, but there are plenty of other ways as well. It doesn't need to be complicated. The important part of mindfulness is to center yourself in the present moment, through meditation or just a brief pause to notice the way your toes feel in your duty boots on your way to a call. Try one of the methods below. It’s all about finding what works for you.

  • Body Scan: Run through your body and take a moment to intentionally notice how each part of your body feels, from your toes all the way through your head.
  • Tense and Release: Similar to the body scan, tense each part of your body individually and then relax it. 
  • 5-4-3-2-1: Notice 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can feel, 2 things you can smell, 1 thing you can taste about your current environment.
  • Walking/Jogging or Other Exercise: If you’ve ever found yourself with a clear relaxed mind or with clarity on a problem after a walk or a hike, you’re already practicing mindfulness!

Get Better Sleep

From responding to a call at 3 AM to working awake night shifts, you'd be hard-pressed to find a first responder who has good sleep habits. About 51% of police officers have clinically poor sleep quality, and 40% of police officers have ever fallen asleep while driving. 37% of active firefighters are at risk of a sleep disorder, such as insomnia, obstructive sleep apnea, restless leg syndrome, or shift work sleep disorder. 

Poor sleep habits carry with them an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, anxiety, and depression; all of which is already increased in first responders. Being awake for 17 hours impairs a person as much as a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.05. Being awake for 24 hours is like having a BAC of 0.10, above the legal limit.  Better sleep hygiene also enables us to effectively manage stress, improves our cognitive focus and immune system, and helps us to maintain a healthy weight. 

Suggestions for Better Sleep

  • Planned napping during long shifts can improve alertness, reaction time, and decrease accidents. Try to get 7 hours of sleep in a 24-hour period, even if it's not in one stretch.
  • Caffeine can improve alertness, but it can also impair your ability to get good sleep later on. If you need it later in your day, try to switch to decaf coffee, which has less caffeine, 4-6 hours before sleep.
  • If you work the night shift, try to block out light during planned daytime sleep. This can be done with blackout curtains or a sleep mask. Using a lightbox in your "morning" under the supervision of a health care provider can also be beneficial. 
  • Develop a ritual before bedtime. Do the same thing each night to prepare for bed. This could include a warm shower, reading a book, journaling, turning off devices, and even practicing mindfulness!
  • If you experience non-restful sleep, daytime sleepiness, difficulty getting to sleep, or excessive snoring, consider talking to your primary care provider for further evaluation.
Facilitate Connection

Feeling connected to your department is an important factor in decreasing stress. Oxytocin, a hormone which facilitates trust, increases during time spent engaging in social activities and bonding with peers. Spending time together outside of work is helpful to build trust and connection with your department.

Ways to Build Community

  • Make or eat family meals together if you can.
  • Keep some board games or cards in the station for downtime.
  • Designate one person each month to plan an activity outside of work. This could be anything from a hike to playing online party games together over video chat. Try to vary the time and day so that people from all shifts have a chance to come.
  • If you don't have a ton of downtime together during shifts, or if you work alone on shift, add some small elements of competition for a fun twist on team building. Hit all your service areas in a single shift? Rescue an animal? Finish a meal in one sitting? Make a board for each shift and see who hits bingo first. 
  • If you are part of a service that operates on call, try designating one shift a month to spend the day or evening together at the station. 
Get Active

Regular exercise has benefits in all areas of wellness. The endorphins produced during exercise can reduce stress, improve mood and cognitive function, and even improve your sleep quality. Staying active doesn’t have to be a massive undertaking. Although the American Heart Association recommends 150 active minutes a week, this can seem like a lot if you’re just getting back into the swing of things. Just doing one active thing a day can still have benefits on both physical and general wellbeing. 

Tips to Stay Active

  • Take the stairs rather than the elevator.
  •  Take the dog for a walk around the block instead of just letting them out into the backyard.
  • Rearrange some furniture.
  • Use a basket at the grocery store instead of a cart.
  • Walk around the house while you’re on the phone with a family member.