Updated: September 10th, 2021
Over the past year and a half, the word resilience has become a catchphrase to describe essential workers. Healthcare workers and first responders have been praised for their resilience and dedication to their jobs and patients even as the pandemic challenged every aspect of their lives. The word resilient is now so overused that each time I hear it spoken, one of Inigo Montoya’s classic lines from The Princess Bride echoes in my head: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
So what does resilience actually mean?
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, resilience is defined as “the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused by especially compressive stress or an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or strain.”
First responders, specifically those involved in direct patient care during the pandemic, do not fit this definition of resilience well; rather, we have shown up, struggled, suffered, and done our best to survive. We are not the same as we were before this stress, nor have we adjusted easily to the new strain that we face daily doing our jobs. We are hurting. This is evidenced by the increasing numbers of providers leaving their professions due to burnout, the increased numbers of PTSD diagnoses, and the alarming number of provider suicides.
In his book, Bulletproof Spirit, Captain Dan Willis lists nine warning signs that you are having difficulty processing the trauma and stress of your profession. These nine warning signs are: isolation, irritability, difficulty sleeping, anger, emotional numbness, lack of communication, cynicism, distrust, and loss of work satisfaction, depression, and drinking as a perceived need or habit. (pages 13-15)
While first responders have always experienced higher numbers of suicides, addictions, and PTSD than the average citizen, the COVID-19 pandemic pushed these numbers even higher as many of our familiar coping mechanisms and grounding techniques disappeared. With the pandemic came lockdowns, taking away our social outlets. We lost places to go for physical outlets when gyms were closed. Instead of blowing off steam and working things out on the treadmill, we brought them home with us. For some of us, even home wasn’t an option anymore.
Fear of spreading infection to our loved ones drove some responders to living isolated lives in hotel rooms eating takeout food every night. Our loss of any human connection increased the risk of depression and removed contact with those people in our lives that provide us with perspective and remind us of the good things in life. Constantly changing practices at work only fueled our anger and distrust of those in charge. This reads like a checklist for the warning signs listed above. When we add all of these things together with the day to day toll of caring for the very sick and dying patients, it is no surprise that the mental health crisis we face has escalated to a critical level.
How do we fix ourselves and begin to heal?
How do we “recover from misfortune and strain” to become resilient instead of just existing and showing up?
We train ourselves to become resilient. Resiliency is a skill that must be learned and practiced, just like placing an IV, driving, or swimming. Honesty, I like the swimming analogy best because resiliency really does help prevent us from sinking and drowning in the trauma we see far too often. As Dave Gillespie states in Developing Firefighter Resiliency, “Knowing what is going on inside you and around you gives you the power to start managing it.” (page 66)
Much like qualifying as an Olympic swimmer, becoming a resilient individual requires daily practice and dedication. Instead of swimming daily laps, we must dedicate ourselves to being mindful and self aware. We must learn to listen to ourselves and interpret the signals our body is sending us so that we can process our stress and effectively regulate our responses to maximize our performance both on and off the job.
While having the support systems and outside interests in place that Captain Dan Willis discusses is an important part of our emotional wellness, it is equally important that we train our bodies to better regulate our nervous system responses. We can accomplish this by exposing our bodies to episodes of controlled stress or challenges followed by periods of conscious regulation and stillness. When we do this, we are training our nervous system to respond how we want it to instead of allowing it to immediately react with a fight or flight response. Think of this as remaining in the driver’s seat instead of becoming the passenger.
Yoga is one method that allows us to practice mindfulness and become more self aware.
Breathwork exercises tap into our nervous system by stimulating our vagus nerve. This helps us slow our heart rate down, use our oxygen more efficiently, and become more focused. Learning to manage and control your breathing is a great tool to master as it requires no equipment and is always with you. If we use the car and driver analogy again, yoga is the helpful navigation system that keeps us in the driver’s seat and in control of the vehicle.
Adding in challenging physical drills or poses creates a stress response in the body in a controlled environment. The use of cognitive declarations or positive self-talk during these challenges provides reassurance and confidence, which aids in removing the feeling of threat, thereby calming our parasympathetic nervous system.
When we finish our practice and move into a neurological reset, we are training our nervous system how to regulate back to homeostasis faster. We are also telling our body that we can do hard things and still be okay. The more we practice this, the more practiced and faster our nervous system becomes at regulating itself back towards homeostasis without the massive hormone releases that take us from feeling on top of the world to the lowest depths.
Eventually, like any other skill, we become more proficient at it. As we become more aware of our responses, we realize we have time to consciously respond to challenges and be mindful of our reactions. We learn how to process stress out of our bodies in a safe and effective manner. This allows us to become more effective at our jobs, have longer careers, and most importantly, become healthier mentally and physically.
Since I started the YFFR Instructor Program, I have committed to practicing yoga each morning.
Some practices are longer than others, some are just breath work, but each one leaves me feeling more prepared to face the challenges of my day.
Written by YogaShield® Instructor Stacy Gills Class 0018 S6
"I am a paramedic who has been in EMS for 30 years. While most of that time has been as a direct patient care provider, I also spend a good amount of time teaching EMS education to both new and seasoned providers. The effect of the pandemic and our jobs as first responders on our mental health inspired me to start my own non-profit last year dedicated to providing a peer network for first responders. It also inspired me to become a Yoga for First Responders Instructor. I believe that this program has the chance to change and save lives. In my spare time, I love to travel and spend time taking photos."
Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Resilience. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/resilience.
Willis, D. (2019). Bulletproof spirit: The first responder's essential resource for protecting and healing mind and heart. New World Library.
Carpenter, R., Gillespie, D., & Jorge, R. (2019). Developing firefighter resiliency. Fire Engineering Books & Videos.
A., V. der K. B. (2015). The body keeps the score: Brain, mind and body in the healing of trauma. Penguin Books.