Commentary

Resiliency in the Fire Service

It was a question from a colleague related to resiliency that prompted this article and the more I pondered over the question, the more intriguing it became.

The actual question is “how do we become resilient” to life, work and the stressors of our jobs.

Even more intriguing is not only the individual resiliency but organizational resiliency to a loss of a firefighter or police officer in our community. There are many “firehouse psychologists” not unlike “firehouse attorneys” that have personal experiences and only through their own personal experience know a little bit about a complex subject due to their experience both good and bad.

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When it comes to facing an actual event challenging our resiliency, how do we measure an individual or organization’s ability to be resilient?

The short answer and only one in my experience is training may prepare you but only an actual event will measure the ability of an individual or organization to be resilient.  

Resiliency is the ability to “bounce back” probably more appropriate to physical things as in rubber bands stretched then retaining their shape, or metals or other inanimate objects that can be pounded back into shape.

  • Resilience has been defined in numerous ways, including the following: “…the ability to bounce back from adversity, frustration, and misfortune…” (Ledesma, 2014: 1);
  • “the developable capacity to rebound or bounce back from adversity, conflict, and failure or even positive events, progress, and increased responsibility” (Luthans, 2002a: 702);
  • “…a stable trajectory of healthy functioning after a highly adverse event” (Bonanno et al., 2004; Bonanno et al., 2011); and
  • “…the capacity of a dynamic system to adapt successfully” (Masten, 2014; Southwick, 2014).

With people, it’s a different process to define and shape resiliency when faced with personal trauma or in cases of LODD. I have known bank tellers, robbed at gunpoint that “box up” the experience, never discuss it even during post incident debriefing, then 20 years later under some unassociated stress event, the experience comes rushing back into their consciousness and they need to deal with a past event in a present time.

A similar story with war veterans of “boxing up” the experience only to have it pop out years later and I can place myself in that category as a war veteran. When I got out of the military after returning from Viet Nam at the ripe old age of 23, I looked at it as an “experience that I survived” and moved on to a career and family. Did I “box it up”?  Yes I did.

What mechanism related to resiliency did I learn or inherit to move on from an extremely stressful war experience and move to ongoing stressors as a paramedic firefighter, medical practitioner, parent and husband, where life itself is stressful enough.

Is resiliency obtained from small mini-trauma exposures that prepare you for the “big one” or is there no developing a resiliency to a major traumatic event such as a LODD, death of a spouse, child or parent?

Obviously bank tellers are not exposed to the daily traumas faced by the military, firefighters or police officers but even with the daily exposures in our industry, each event has a different meaning to each of the responders depending on their personal ability to deal with traumas and their resiliency. There is no one size fits all resiliency strategy.

So the question is, how do you develop individual and institutional resiliency?

I can only speak from my experience based on various exposures in life. From early childhood, I was fortunate enough to live in a small farming town in upstate NY that had is shares of trauma and troubles from a major train wreck in the middle of town killing two elderly friends of the family and nearly destroying the town, to high school and high school sports when you win some and lose some, to high school classmates dying in vehicle or farm accidents to working on a farm as a kid with loss of favorite animals.

Each event is a minor (or major) trauma event to the individual, but one deals with it the best they can and it was during the time where the mental aspect of loss was recognized as a trauma. Dad always said “get over it and move on”. I never really thought about those experiences very much, even in my adult years. I could attribute my resiliency to my small town, my participation in a particular religion (not getting too preachy), family, death of a brother, my personal health, friends, education, military, war, challenges of success and failures, missed opportunities, training, other people’s experience, reading and learning and put your own background and experiences in here for yourself.

Are some people born more resilient than others? One well-known article, The Science of Resilience: Implications for the Prevention and Treatment of Depression, discusses human biological responses to trauma and looks at a sample of high-risk individuals to understand why some are more able to cope even in the face of life-changing adversity.

Predisposition to resilience – Are some firefighters more resilient than others? Examining three samples of participants to investigate whether these individuals had a genetic predisposition toward being more resilient: Special Forces instructors, former Vietnam POWs, and individuals who had suffered considerable trauma. In doing so, Southwick and colleagues looked at the psychological factors of these individuals, their genetic factors, and their spiritual, social, and biological factors. Their results found risk and protective factors generally have additive and interactive effects…having multiple genetic, developmental, neurobiological, and/or psychosocial risk factors will increase allostatic load or stress vulnerability, whereas having and enhancing multiple protective factors will increase the likelihood of stress resilience. Put succinctly, genetic factors do have an important influence on our responses to trauma and stress. (Southwick, 2012).

Resilient people know their boundaries. Resilient people understand that there is a separation between who they are at their core and the cause of their temporary suffering. Stress/trauma might play a part in their story, but it does not overtake their permanent identity.  Resilient people keep good company, tend to seek out and surround themselves with other resilient people, whether just for fun or when there’s a need for support. Supportive people give us the space to grieve and work through our emotions. They know how to listen and when to offer just enough encouragement without trying to solve all of our problems with their advice. Good supporters know how to just be with adversity—calming us rather than frustrating us. Is this where EAP and Peer support groups or Chaplains come into play providing provide that necessary support?

Resilient people cultivate self-awareness. Being “blissfully unaware” can get us through a bad day, however it is not a very wise long-term strategy. Self-awareness helps us get in touch with our psychological/physiological needs—knowing what we need, what we don’t need, and when it’s time to reach out for some extra help. The self-aware are good at listening to the subtle cues their body and their mood are sending.

For many firefighters, a prideful stubbornness without emotional flexibility or self-awareness can make us emotional glaciers – always trying to be strong in order to stay afloat, yet prone to massive stress fractures when we experience an unexpected change in our environment. Resilient people practice acceptance. Pain is painful, stress is stressful, and healing takes time. When we’re in it, we want the pain to go away. When we’re outside it, we want to take away the pain of those who we see suffering. Yet resilient people understand that stress/pain is a part of living that ebbs and flows. As hard as it is in the moment, it’s better to come to terms with the truth of the pain than to ignore it, repress it, or deny it.

Firefighters are in the business of helping and we are “trained” to accept other people’s loss and helping those unfortunate suffering a loss and acceptance. However, when those losses affect us directly, we have to remember that acceptance is not about giving upand letting the stress take over, it’s about leaning in to experience the full range of emotions and trusting that we will bounce back.

Silence is an important part of resilience and at times we need to sit in silence. We are masters of self-distraction with cell phones, eating, drinking and risky behavior. As firefighters, we all react differently to stress and trauma. Some of us shut down and some of us ramp up. Somewhere in the middle there is mindfulness —being in the presence of the moment without judgment or avoidance. It takes practice, but it’s one of the purest and most ancient forms of healing and resilience-building.

Resilient people do not have to have all the answers. Your psyche has its own built-in protective mechanisms that help us regulate stress. When we try hard to find the answers to difficult questions in the face to traumatic events, that trying too hard can block the answers from arising naturally in their own due time. We can find strength in knowing that it’s okay to not have it all figured out right now and trusting that we will gradually find peace and knowing when our mind-body-soul is ready.

Finally, resilient people have a menu of self-care habits with a mental and physical list of good habits that support them when they need it most. Many of us turn to exercise and others turn to self-medication. Both in excess can be destructive. We need to indulge in self-care seeking those things that recharge our batteries and refill our resilience capacity.

The best-known positive psychology framework for resilience is Seligman’s 3P’s Model referring to three emotional reactions that we tend to have to adversity known as Seligman’s Model of Resilience. By addressing these often automatic responses, we can build resilience and grow, developing our adaptability and learning to cope better with challenges. Seligman’s 3P’s are: Personalization, a cognitive distortion that’s best described as the internalization of problems or failure. When we hold ourselves accountable for bad things that happen, we put a lot of unnecessary blame on ourselves and make it harder to bounce back. Pervasiveness, assuming negative situations spread across different areas of our life. As an example, losing a contest and assuming that all is doom and gloom in general. By acknowledging that bad feelings don’t impact every life domain, we can move forward toward a better life, and Permanence, believing that bad experiences or events last forever, rather than being transient or one-off events. Permanence prevents us from putting effort into improving our situation, often making us feel overwhelmed and as though we can’t recover. By recognizing their role in our ability to adapt positively, we can start becoming more resilient and learning to bounce back from life’s challenges. (Seligman, 1990)

Resilient people consider other possibilities. We can train ourselves to ask which parts of our current story are permanent and which can possibly change. Can this situation be looked at in a different way that I haven’t been considering? This helps us maintain a realistic understanding that the present situation is being colored by our current experiences. Our experiences, the interpretations of our experiences will always change as we grow and mature. Knowing that today’s interpretation can and will change, gives us the faith and hope that things can feel better tomorrow. Resilient people get out of their head. When we’re in the midst of stress and overwhelm, our thoughts can swirl with dizzying speed and disconnectedness. We can find reprieve by getting the thoughts out of our head and written down.

Organizational Resilience Theory. Just as people can develop their resilience, organizations can learn to rebound from and adapt after facing challenges. Organizational resilience can be thought of as “a ‘culture of resilience,’ which manifests itself as a form of ‘psychological immunity,’” to incremental and transformational changes, according to Boston Consulting Group Fellow Dr. George Stalk Jr. (Everly, 2011). With a host of factors contributing consistently to a dynamic and sometimes turbulent business environment, organizational resilience has gained incredible salience in recent years. And at the heart of it, Everly argues, are optimism and perceived self-efficacy. A culture of organizational resilience relies heavily on role-modeling behaviors. Even a few credible and high-profile individuals in a company demonstrating resilient behaviors may encourage others to do the same (Everly, 2011). These behaviors include: persisting in the face of adversity; putting effort into dealing with challenges; practicing and demonstrating self-aiding thought patterns; providing support to and mentoring others; leading with integrity; practicing open communication; and showing decisiveness.

Life is never perfect. As much as we wish things would ‘just go our way,’ difficulties are inevitable, and we all have to deal with them. Resilience Theory argues that it’s not the nature of adversity that is most important, but how we deal with it. When we face adversity, misfortune, or frustration, resilience helps us bounce back. It helps us survive, recover, and even thrive in the face and wake of misfortune – but that’s not all there is to it.

The take home message is, resilience is something we can all develop, whether we want to grow as individuals, as a family, or as a society more broadly.

Endnotes and Citations:

  • https://positivepsychology.com/resilience-theory/  Catherine Moore, Psychologist, MBA
  • Bonanno G. A., Westphal M., Mancini A. D. Resilience to loss and potential trauma. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 2011; 7: 511–535.
  • Everly, G. S. (2011). Building a resilient organizational culture. Harvard Business Review, 10(2), 109-138.
  • Ledesma, J. (2014). Conceptual frameworks and research models on resilience in leadership. Sage Open, 4(3), 1-8.
  • Luthans, F. (2002a). The need for and meaning of positive organizational behavior. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 23: 695-706.
  • Luthans, F. )2002b). Positive organizational behavior. Developing and managing psychological strengths. Academy of Management Executive, 16(1): 57-72.
  • Magis, K. 2010. Community resilience: An indicator of social sustainability. Society Nat. Resources 23:401–416.
  • Masten A. S. Global perspectives on resilience in children and youth. Child Development. 2014a; 85: 6–20.
  • Seligman, M (1990). Learned optimism. New York: Pocket Books.
  • Southwick, S. M., & Charney, D. S. (2012). The science of resilience: implications for the prevention and treatment of depression. Science, 338(6103), 79-82.
  • Southwick, S. M., Bonanno, G. A., Masten, A. S., Panter-Brick, C., & Yehuda, R. (2014). Resilience definitions, theory, and challenges: interdisciplinary perspectives. European journal of psychotraumatology, 5(1), 25338.

This commentary reflects the opinion of the author and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of Fire Engineering. It has not undergone Fire Engineering‘s peer-review process.