Insights for High Stress Professions
Resilience is the ability to leverage tools and resources to recover well and grow stronger from adversity. You’re going to experience stress, adversity and trauma. Resilience is about what you do after that experience to come back stronger, because everyone has a breaking point, and everyone can develop their skill sets in navigating stressful situations.
Actively building resilience increases your bandwidth to weather it, to come back stronger, and to navigate the daily stressors and hassles of your life. To build resilience, you want to work on protecting the physical, mental, and emotional bandwidth you have, then work on boosting it.
Protect Your Bandwidth
Bandwidth is another way to describe your physical, mental and emotional energy reserves. When these are high, you have a high ability to navigate challenging situations, stay sharp, and shift your focus and energy from situation to situation. When your bandwidth is low, it’s harder to maintain focus and performance, it’s harder to shift between tasks, and day-to-day things take more effort than normal. You don’t function well when your bandwidth is low (yes, you can push through, but at a high cost).
Recognize Stress and Complete the Stress Cycle
As your body’s physiological stress levels increase, your bandwidth is taxed. Your attentional field narrows, non-essential functions shut down, and energy is diverted to systems that can help you survive a threat. Depending on the situation you’re in, this is actually really helpful. Sometimes, however, this isn’t very helpful. For example, the part of your brain that helps you communicate effectively shuts down, sometimes the energy mobilization is really uncomfortable (especially if you’re in a situation where you can’t move around).
It’s helpful to recognize indicators that your stress level is rising and you might lose self-control or composure. These are situations where you want to protect that energy bandwidth from being spent unnecessarily:
To help protect your bandwidth, you need to know how to turn down the dial on your stress systems (complete the stress cycle). Completing the stress cycle is about signaling safety, clearing stress hormones, and restoring the body to homeostasis after it’s been activated. There are seven simple evidence-based methods for completing the stress cycle, but I find the first four are the most portable, easy to get on the fly, and appropriate in most professional settings:
The more you pay attention to your physical, mental, and emotional energy reserves (bandwidth), the more you can keep your batteries charged and ready for the next call.
Connect with Your Values
Values are guiding principles that show everyone (including yourself) what’s important and where your priorities lie. Your values are what led you to make the choices to get into and stay in this field.
If your life feels like it’s sucking the soul out of you, you are probably living in a way that doesn’t align with your values. This is very draining. If you can stay aligned with your values, you can protect your bandwidth for the tough situations you will face. Additionally, staying true to your values at work prevents burnout, and working in an environment not aligned with your values increases stress. This is because values are a source of energy: one that allows you to handle stress, and have the confidence to set and maintain healthy boundaries; values help you protect your bandwidth.
Read through this list of values and circle any that resonate with you. Now look at the list of values you’ve circled and eliminate all but the top ten. From that list of ten, select your top 2-5 values.
Now, take these core values and define them into observable behaviors. For example, family becomes “I value providing for my family” or “I value spending quality time with my family.”
Finally, give yourself a grade on how well you live these values every day. The higher the score, the more you’re protecting your bandwidth. If you scored low, you’re probably facing a large energy drain each day. If you scored lower than an "A", what choices can you make to embody them more fully? You can also look at your values daily and choose how they will show up in your life that day.
Set Healthy Boundaries
Healthy boundaries are about indicating what is and isn’t acceptable for you. It’s also recognizing what is on your side of the street (i.e. what is your problem to solve) and what isn’t. You may be spending extra energy taking care of others, solving problems for them, being annoyed by them, complaining about them. In these situations, and in any situation where you may be feeling resentful, setting boundaries can be really powerful. Some boundaries may sound like:
You can also set boundaries with yourself about what you will and won’t do. For example, being irritated with someone else’s choices, when they don’t impact you, is a drain on your energy. Thinking about people and how they reacted during a situation when you can’t change anything allows them and that situation to live rent free in your head. Thinking about work when you’re not at work allows work to consume more of you than it truly requires. This is easier said than done, but you can make different choices around how you spend your time, energy, and thoughts, thus protecting your bandwidth.
Boost Your Bandwidth
The first step in boosting your bandwidth is protecting it from the factors that drain it. The second step is to actively build your physical, mental and emotional energy reserves.
Breathing is a great way to control your physiology when things get ramped up. Breathing is also a great way to complete the stress cycle and boost your energy reserves. To get these benefits, you have to practice regularly. Practice it in stressful situations, practice it in relaxed situations, practice it in dull situations, practice when you’re trying to sleep; the more you practice, the more powerful the benefits will be when you need them.
There are a lot of effective breathing strategies out there, and the most common one used by first responders is Tactical Breathing (sometimes called box breathing or square breathing). Sit or stand up tall, roll your shoulders back and take deep breaths that expand your belly. Inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, exhale for four counts and hold for four counts. Each cycle of inhale, hold, exhale, hold is one round of breathing, Do six rounds (about two minutes). Do this a few times a day. (If you don’t like this one, check out these other breathing strategies like the three part breath, 2:1 breathing or rhythmic (cadence) breathing.)
Move your Body
Movement and exercise improve circulation, cardiovascular health, brain functioning, stress tolerance, and just about any psychological and physiological marker you have. Getting regular movement throughout the day is critical to your overall physical, mental, and emotional health. Depending on which profession you’re in, you may get a lot of movement throughout the day already, or your role may be more sedentary. Getting movement like walking, running, yoga and weight lifting can tremendously boost your energy reserves (bandwidth).
Another reason to move your body regularly is it helps clear stress hormones from your body (think how a good workout feels after a really hard day). When you don’t complete the stress cycle, excess stress gets stored in your muscles and joints as stiffness, pain, inflammation, and soreness.
Boost Positive Emotions
Positive emotions are really powerful tools and they serve a greater purpose than just balancing out negative emotions. Positive emotions broaden your attention, creative thinking and problem solving, and reset your physiology back to baseline. They also build your physical, mental and emotional energy reserves.
Boost positive emotions by thinking of something you’re grateful for, something that makes you laugh, or something you’re excited about and looking forward to. These act as booster shots to boost your bandwidth to help you deal with tough situations later.
When you think about resilience as your bandwidth to handle adversity and come back stronger, it’s clear that you need to make choices that protect your limited bandwidth and do things that boost your bandwidth in the moment and over time.
Training App: Resilience WODs for First Responders
eBook: First Responder Resilience eBook
Blog post: A First Responder's Guide to Dealing With Stress
First responders have a stressful job. You have long hours, shift work, your work is reactionary, you don’t know what your day will be like when you get to work. Then you have the normal day-to-day stressors (traffic, money, family hassles) that most people experience. You’re still human; this takes a toll, and it’s important to have really powerful tools for managing this.
There are a lot of things that help manage stress, like getting good sleep, breathing strategies, mindfulness, therapy, etc., but this article isn’t intended to talk about how to use those. This article is a framework for thinking differently about how to deal with stress.
Complete the Stress Cycle
The stress response ramps up like a roller coaster. It triggers a surge of energy that enables you to fight or flee from threats (or freeze if fighting and fleeing aren’t options). It needs to ramp back down to baseline to complete the stress cycle, but we don’t usually give it the chance (especially when the stress response is triggered again before our body is able to fully restore homeostasis).
Completing the stress cycle is about signaling safety, clearing stress hormones, and restoring the body to homeostasis after it’s been activated. There are seven simple evidence-based methods for completing the stress cycle:
The first four are the most portable, easy to get on the fly, and appropriate in most professional settings.
Recover Spent Energy
Your stress response ramped up to help you manage a threat, then after the situation was over, you completed the stress cycle. Well done! That whole roller coaster up and down spent a lot of your energy. It’s important to do something to help recover and boost your energy so you have more bandwidth for whatever you may face next.
The most important thing is for you to use the strategies that seem to work for you. Given the pace of your work, I also think it’s important to have strategies that are short, portable and potent. I like to call these “microdoses.” (These will look similar to some of the complete the stress cycle strategies)
Now that we’ve dealt with the acute effects of stress in our bodies, let’s move on to dealing with the stressors that cause the stress cycle. There are stressors in your life that you can control, and ones you can’t. We can use different strategies based on whether or not these stressors are things we can control.
Grip forces are things you can control. Just like you can grip a pen and maneuver it in space to write what you want, grip forces are things you can control, influence or manipulate. You can control the choices you make, the plans you create to manage your life, and the attitude you bring with you. Gravity forces are things you can’t control or influence; they are happening to you and you can’t change that. In these situations you can control your attitude, and you can try to minimize how much energy this situation takes from you.
Maybe some of your stressors are what and when you can eat, paying your bills on time, relationship challenges, stress with management and administration. A tricky thing about many stressors is that there are some things we can control and some things we can’t. For example, you can’t control when your bills are due but you can control how you make a plan to pay them in a timely manner. You may not be able to control when you eat, but you can control how you prepare for those situations.
Dealing with Grip Forces
Since we can control Grip forces, we want to take control over these particular stressors in our lives. First of all, if something on your plate isn’t all that important, practice letting go. It doesn’t need to take up space on your plate and it’s not worth spending any of your limited resources on it. If it is important, then it’s worth taking the time to make a plan. Oftentimes, important things are going to be around for a while, so we need to have a plan for how to manage them well on an ongoing basis.
What is your plan to pay your bills in a timely manner? Autopay? Paying when you get the bill? Setting up reminders? Negotiating alternate payment plans? What is your plan to have easy and healthy meals that are ready to eat so you don’t have to stress about making good choices when you’re starving because you didn’t get to take your lunch today? Remember, you have control or influence over these, and exercising that control is very empowering to help us manage stress.
Dealing with Gravity Forces
Gravity forces are tricky. You can’t control, change or influence the situation, which makes the situation more stressful and frustrating. If you’re in debt now, at this point, you can’t change the fact that you’re in debt. If you’re injured now, you can’t change the fact that you’re injured. If you have toxic leadership, you can’t change the fact that you have toxic leadership. You can’t control the nature of your job as a first responder. What you can do is control your attitude and how you interact with these stressors. This is easier said than done, but a great place to start building skill.
To minimize the impact of these stressors, you can set clear boundaries, and you can reframe the situation. To reframe the situation, prompt yourself to think about it differently with one of the sentence starters below:
It’s important to note that reframing the situation doesn’t take a sucky situation and suddenly make it a great one. It’s also not trying to cover crap with flowers (ignore the situation). It’s trying to find a way to see the situation that doesn’t drain as much of your energy.
Healthy boundaries are about indicating what is and isn’t acceptable for you. It’s also recognizing what is on your side of the street (or problem to solve) and what isn’t. Many times we spend extra energy taking care of others, solving problems for them, being annoyed by them, complaining about them. In these situations, and in any situation where you may be feeling resentful, setting boundaries can be really powerful. They may sound like:
Make Space to Unpack
You’ve been carrying a heavier and heavier load over time. This load consists of the stress, trauma, frustrations and unpredictability of your job. If you don’t make space to unpack and lighten that load, it will only get heavier and harder to carry. It may also start to tumble around you, coming out in ways you can’t control.
Making space to unpack is best done with skilled professionals. What resources are available through your organization? Have you used them? Do you know them to have helped others?
Training App: Resilience WODs for First Responders
eBook: First Responder Resilience eBook
Blog: Daily Habits for Boosting Resilience in First Responders
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