In recent weeks, the term “resilience” has come to light. A quick “Google” of “first responder, resilience” for instance will produce Simon Fraser University’s online First Responder’s Trauma and Recovery certificate and Langara College’s Strategic Resilience for First Responders.
1. the ability of a substance or object to spring back into shape; elasticity
2. the capacity to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness
In an article released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, National Center for PTSD, titled “Resilience: An Update” the authors (Southwick, Pietraz, Tsia, and Krystal, 2015) explain that there is no universal definition for resilience. They go on to list a wide range of viable definitions that have been put forward. These include: “a stable trajectory of healthy functioning after a highly adverse event; the process to harness resources to sustain well being; enhanced psychobiological capacity to modulate the stress response” and the list continues.
Those are some of the many definitions given for resilience. There is research that speaks to the “elasticity” of the brain. Notably, this has been found in the developing brain where form and function returns to some, after a devastating events (like hydocephalus). The term “bounce back” denotes this type of response.
There are many questions left to ask and the definition of resilience does little to help clarify this for us. What is “mental toughness” or “emotionally elasticity”? When we speak about the resilience of a first responder, undoubtedly we must discuss and try to answer these questions. They are at the foundation of what makes some first responders struggle during situations and others not.
Dr. Ruth Lamb, Coordinator for the Strategic Resilience for First Responders, offered by Langara College, stated that teaching resiliency requires “the whole person, not just the mind”. Dr. Lamb has outlined that their program teaches people to be able to become attuned with both their body and their minds in an effort to reconnect the person.
In this way, resilience is not so much about “toughness”, but of elasticity. The ability to overcome the adversity at hand, not to simply endure it.
The variations in definitions are telling in and of itself. Resilience clearly looks different depending on the person. This may, partially, explain why we see a wide array of response to a trauma from both within and between groups of first responders. We are used to hearing that, “there are numerous ways that one can succumb to traumatic experiences”, but the untold side of this is that there are numerous ways of being resilient. While we are looking at those affected closely, as they need our support, those who have walked away mentally healthy should be of interest as well.
“We need to focus on prevention,” Dr. Lamb lamented.
This is an idea that is not widely spread, or at least it doesn’t come across that way in Ontario. We seem to be trying to catch up with our response to PTSD and trauma. It was only in February 2016 did a bill finally pass that allowed first responders to access services without being hounded for “proof” that it occurred on the job.
I asked Dr. Lamb if resilience was like learning a language, whereas if one doesn’t continue to use it they can slowly lose it over time. Or, was it more akin to learning to ride a bike and hoping on one year later seems to remain automatic. “Well, you have to use the bike a lot to learn it in the first place”. She was hinting that the various tools and strategies that you learn to build on your resiliency first require direct attention and practice.
But, with some basic research skills, interest, and the Internet, you can quickly become overwhelmed with the amount of different skills that there are for coping. So, like trying to remember answers for a test there are only so many you can cram in at one time. Dr. Lamb had some advice.
“I say pick your top 3”, Dr. Ruth said mirroring the advice she gives during the course, “and use those until they are grooved in”.
Dr. Lamb is clear that she believes resilience is much like the bike, where learning and practicing the skill, allows you to come back to it when they are needed. “The ‘strategic’ in the course title was chosen carefully”, Dr. Ruth continued, “once you have learned the skills, you know that you have a certain amount of time you need to use them within following an incident”.
Therefore, not only are the tools for resiliency important but being strategic in when and how they are used is also a large piece of the puzzle.
Do I have it?
This question is more problematic than it may first seem. For instance, are we talking about resiliency within your job or within your life, or do we mean both. Are these the same “types” of resiliency? Many factors are present and influence both. Southwick and his co-authors identify the vastly encompassing factors that predict or reflect one’s resilience. These include biopsychosocial factors; in a glimpse they suggest that biological and psychological and social/environmental factors all contribute (or diminish) one’s level of resiliency. As well, they offer that how you were raised also can affect this.
Developmental factors were found to play a significant role, according to Southwick and his colleagues. How you were raised and the environment in which you were raised also contributes to the development of resiliency skills. Therefore, resiliency skills are something that does not come “naturally” in the sense that we have a skill-set when we are born. Rather, much like the courses aim to do, we are taught them in various ways as we age.
Through a traumatic experience, you can either learn healthy coping strategies or falter onto unhealthy methods of coping. Obviously, choosing maladaptive coping approaches is going to lead you to. And, as new research has started to find, experiencing trauma and overcoming trauma also builds in resilience.. This is a much easier process when you have help.
Forward Thinking – Think Different
Moving forward, Dr. Ruth believes that we must focus on preventative factors. Establishing solid strategies prior to any issue arising will benefit the individual, their families, their departments, and the system. Therefore, establishing a preventative program benefits everyone. The largest barriers to these types of programs are our attitudes. Realizing that we need to move away from “toughness” and more towards “resiliency”. Toughness connotes a masculine, cold, unmoved type of mentality.
Unfortunately, repression of emotion and ignoring trauma experiences affects us in other ways in the long term. New research has started to shine light on how illness, cancers, fibromyalgia, and even dementia are being linked to trauma experiences and a prolonged stress response. Getting help is therefore the most important step one can have following a trauma experience.