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 (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. They 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, but 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 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
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