The concept of psychological resilience is neither new nor difficult to understand, and yet it requires a certain level of “buy-in” in order to get the largest possible benefit. In short, psychological resilience is our ability to properly adapt to stress, anxiety and adversity—issues that can plague our profession.
Resilience training in the fire service is like sharpening a chainsaw. Sure you can do the job without a sharp blade, but once sharpened, you can operate much more effectively. According to the American Psychological Association, “Resilience is the process of adapting well in the face of adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats or significant sources of stress, such as family and relationship problems, serious health problems or workplace and financial stressors.”
An easier way to think about the concept of resilience is the shocks on a vehicle. When we are driving down a nice smooth road, our vehicle rarely bounces and our ride is amazing. Alternately, when we deal with roads that have potholes, we bounce down the road, but the shocks absorb much of the impact so we feel less of it. Resilience allows you to drive down the bumpiest roads without the bone-jarring impact.
Why do we need to be more resilient, and how do we become more resilient? It is my belief that firefighters are some of the most resilient individuals out there—and we need to be, considering some of the situations we face in this career. Our capacity to bounce back from the daily stress of our jobs, as well as the added stress of family life, is astonishing. But like most skills, we need to practice. The more we practice, the better we become. Key to this is that resilience practice focuses on the prevention of issues, such as anxiety, depression and overall stress levels, as opposed to the treatment of them.
Positive Psychology is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals and communities to thrive. In this field of study, there is a model for happiness and well-being called PERMA, which is an acronym: positive emotions, engagement, relationships, meaning and accomplishment.
Most people want to be “happy.” Unfortunately, happiness is a construct and not easily defined, as it is different for each individual. If you were to ask around the firehouse kitchen table what happiness is, you would get many varied answers. So while happiness is not measurable, well-being is measured through the use of PERMA.
Because resilience is a key component of well-being, I believe PERMA is also a great measure of resilience. With this in mind, let’s break down the components of PERMA to see how each one relates to the fire service and, ultimately, our resilience.
Positive emotions allow us to focus on the positive aspects of the job without dwelling on the negative. Due to the nature of this profession, negative outcomes are going to happen. If we were to focus only on the negative aspects of the job, we would be depressed and anxious all of the time. By being able to focus on the positive emotions that this job produces, we can condition ourselves to see the positive in the world, instead of just the negative. For example, how many of your departments participate in community outreach? One example from my department community outreach program is holiday gift-giving. Members donate money or buy toys for the local children who may not receive gifts otherwise. This allows members to give back to the community they serve as well as enjoy the benefit of the positive emotions generated from giving toys and bringing joy to the families. There have been times when the only toys that those children would receive for that year came from the fire department.
Without engagement, we feel bored and useless. When we become engaged in an idea or a purpose, we fall into a state of flow. Have you ever been so engrossed in a book, a movie or a hobby that time seemed to slip away? That’s flow. Most firefighters love their jobs and, as such, fall into a state of flow at work, making the shift seem to fly by.
Firefighters are social creatures. Everyone knows the heart of a firehouse is the kitchen table, and the conversations and connections made there, from our work to activities outside the department, mean we are rarely alone. The fostering of these positive relationships is important to our overall well-being, as joy manufactured from these interactions brings more joy. On the other side of the coin, we must recognize when a relationship has become toxic and unhealthy and end it. Setting personal boundaries is acceptable and encouraged to maintain your positive well-being.
I have often heard firefighters say that they are “called” to the job. To refer to the fire service as a calling implies that it has a meaning much higher than just ourselves. When we do good things for others, it is known as prosocial behavior. This behavior elicits a positive response for us and is a reminder of the good things that we share in life. For example, if you serve food at a soup kitchen or shelter, you realize that you are providing something for someone who needs it, and you aren’t doing it for personal gain or a favor. You are simply doing it as a person helping their fellow man. Prosocial behaviors like these have been shown to reduce depression and maintain high levels of job satisfaction.
Most of us have a Type A personality. We love to win and we tie our sense of worth into whether or not we won (or were promoted, for example). Accomplishment is important to well-being, but winning or losing isn’t the main concern. We need to be able to look back on our life and our goals and see what we have accomplished. Many of us have been through significant life-altering events and we’re still here. The accomplishment of prevailing through difficult times should be celebrated and revered, not looked down upon. Setting goals and developing the strengths necessary to obtain those goals shows us that life is a marathon and not a sprint, and that we are not easily detoured at the first sign of adversity.
Developing a positive outlook
Now that you understand what well-being is, the next logical step is to show you how to build it. There are a few methods that we can use to develop a more positive outlook on life and build psychological resilience.
The first option is to develop high-quality connections. This goes back to the area of relationships. A high-quality connection is a short-duration contact that leaves you feeling energized, motivated and engaged. For example, you meet a fellow firefighter for lunch one day to discuss family, work and life. Although not a long get-together, you leave feeling energized and feeling as though they just “get” you.
Another option is active-constructive responding. Of the methods of response, this is the main method of developing positive interactions. Active-constructive responding is enthusiastic and genuine. Most of the time when we listen, we do so with the intent to respond. Active-constructive responding allows us to listen for both information and emotion. For example, you can say, “Hey brother, I heard your vacation was amazing. I’m very happy for you as I know it’s something that you’ve wanted to do for a long time and I’m glad that you finally got the chance to go.” This type of enthusiastic support allows for a common bond to form or be strengthened. Our interactions are a lot like our bank accounts. They are a series of deposits and withdrawals. The more time we spend making deposits into these relationships, the less impact it will have when we have a bad day and end up making a withdrawal.
While we strive to build resilience proactively, its value comes by allowing us to come back from adversity more easily by using the same tools. When you have a bad day, or a bad call, you can go back to the same skills that you previously ingrained. The time that you spent on developing the high-quality connections and using active-constructive responding to develop relationships will allow you to be able to go to those individuals when you find yourself in a sticky situation. Those previous connections can help you to focus on the positive emotions and the meaning behind the work that we do. They can share in the accomplishments that you have had and allow you to feel more engaged. You can also see the situation as a temporary, external event versus a pervasive, permanent situation.
So how do you determine what all of this means and how you’re doing according to this concept of PERMA? If you visit authentichappiness.org, you can take the PERMA survey. I recommend taking it quarterly to see how you are trending, as how we feel on any given day can impact our overall outcome.
Additionally, using the techniques above will further develop your resilience and ability to adjust to adversity. The best part of resilience is that there is no end point, so we can constantly achieve higher levels. Focusing on your mental well-being not only keeps you healthy, but also allows you to strive toward a prosperous and successful career.