By Anthony S. Mangeri, MPA, EMT, CEM
Resilience begins with understanding the stress you face when responding into the chaos of crisis. Responding to the needs of a community during its most vulnerable times can have its toll on how emergency responders process the world around them. Unmanaged, constant exposure to such adversity can influence relationships, cause health issues and even affect safety at work. Being a Resilient Responder starts with committing to take care of yourself, sleeping well, eating well and living well.
According to the Department of Health & Human Services, Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, “Individual resilience involves behaviors, thoughts, and actions that promote personal wellbeing and mental health. It refers to a person’s ability to withstand, adapt to, and recover from adversity”.
Begin with a good night’s sleep
Resilience begins with reporting for duty mentally and physically ready to respond. Be sure that you are well rested and ready to perform at your best. Sleep is a critical component to one’s physical health and mental wellbeing and is essential to resilience. According to the National Heart, lung and Blood Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health, sleep helps your brain to function and process the stress of the world around us. Sleep also prepares your brain for your duty day. It aids in managing your attention span and decision-making and creative skills.
Sleep deficiency many impact resilience and can impact emotions, behavior and one’s ability to cope with changes. This can lead to elevated levels of stress and has been linked to depression, risky behaviors and even suicide. Avoid surprises by being current on issues and events that may impact emergency operations.
NHLBI also points to the value of sleep in managing physical wellbeing and repairing the impact of stresses on our bodies. When you sleep, the body heals and regenerates. For example, when you sleep, your body works to repair the impact of a variety of stresses on your heart and blood vessels. Individuals who have continued lack of sleep may suffer from other complications from sleep deficiency such as an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and even stroke.
Eat well and Take Your Time
We all have heard that you are what you eat. Eating well includes learning about food and nutrition so that you eat a healthy well balanced diet. Also, be sure to avoid excessive amounts of caffeine and alcohol. According to the American Heart Association, excessive amounts of alcohol or caffeine can increase blood pressure. Avoid caffeine during rehab. Instead drink water to stay hydrated. Caffeine can interfere with sleep cycles and can exaggerate the impacts of stress on the body and mind.
According to an article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter, while stress initially may reduce appetite, stress eating is real. Stress eating can lead to the overeating of comfort foods that can be high in fats and sugars. This in turn can lead to weight gain and obesity. Prolong exposure to high stress triggers the body’s survival mechanisms, including an increase in appetite. If your body perceives that the stress is ever-present, it may cause a continuation of appetite.
The article also advises that stress can also change the type of food we desire. Several studies have shown that “physical or emotional distress increases the intake of food high in fat, sugar, or both”. Foods that are heavy in fat and sugar may interfere with the area of the brain that identifies stress. These comfort foods may reduce stress but create cravings for what may be unhealthy choices.
To counteract the cravings for unhealthy food choices, focus food choices to more fruits and vegetables. Limit the intake of foods that are high in fat, salt, and sugar. Drink water and exercise to lower levels of the stress hormone.
Engage your peers, partners and friends
Several articles and studies show that having healthy relationships is a critical component of a personal resiliency strategy. Being mentally prepared for duty includes the ability to process and discuss our experiences with those we trust and with those we have built relationships. Relationships help the responders maintain a positive outlook and a calm.
The American Psychological Association has released an online brochure that can assist individuals in building their resiliency. Two factors that they associate with resiliency are communication skills and the capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses. While an individual can build these capabilities alone, having relationships allows peers, partners and friends to be part of a support network.
The APA provides 10 ways to build resilience. The first is to build strong connections with family, peers, friends. Having the support and assistance of those around you that care is essential to resilience and recovery from stress. Also, being there for others in need can have a benefit to building personal resilience. Peers, partners and friends also help to recognize changes in personality and behavior that you may not recognize and help you recognize and cope.
No one is immune to the physical and emotional impacts of stress. Just as physical conditioning takes time, building a resilient lifestyle takes time. However, it is an essential component of assuring fitness for duty.
Portions of this article appeared in InPublicsafety.com as part of American Military University’s series on stress and wellness in public safety. Visit Inpublicsafety.com for access to the free resource, Understanding and Coping with First Responder Stress .
SIGNS IT IS TIME TO SEEK HELP
If you, a colleague, or a loved one recognize the below signs, it is time to seek out help from a professional.
- Changes in eating habits, such as overeating or a loss of appetite
- Overly worried, even about smaller things
- Inability to concentrate, memory recall issues, or the inability to think clearly
- Sadness, hopelessness, or feelings of worthlessness
- Light, sound, sight, or touch sensitivities
- Being restless, agitated, and irritable
- Loss of interest in activities
- Withdrawing from others
- Lack of energy, enthusiasm, and motivation
- Trouble concentrating
- Reckless drinking of alcohol
- Trouble making decisions
- Weight gain or loss out of the norm
- Trouble sleeping or sleeping more than usual
- Anger and rage over trivial things
- Taking unnecessary risks
- Openly talking about suicide