Beyond a Buzzword: The Importance of Resilience Building and Tools to Build it
Resilience was the word of the year in 2022, according to the Harvard Business Review (Amico, 2022). Some speculate that this increased interest in resilience is due to COVID, but the interest doesn’t seem to be slowing down even as COVID’s infection rates dwindle. Regardless of why it’s a buzzword, it’s great that resilience is getting so much attention. While resilience is crucial in any field, certain fields require a higher level of resilience, such as first responders. The responder community has long recognized the need for increased resilience to accommodate the high-pressure nature of work, but there needs to be more of a focus on preventative resilience building. With all of the information available on the topic of personal resilience, it can be overwhelming to know where to start on your resilience building journey. In this article, we will define personal resilience, discuss its importance to the responder community, and provide tangible tools that you can use to boost your levels of resilience.
What is Personal Resilience?
Personal resilience is an individual’s ability to handle, adapt to, and bounce back from stressful situations. There are many models of personal resilience, but one of the most common resilience measures is the Connor-Davidson Resilience Scale (CD-RISC). According to Ye and colleagues (2022), the CD-RISC has five dimensions:
Why is Personal Resilience Important?
We are all resilient to a certain degree, but research shows that higher levels of resilience have positive implications. Personal resilience can positively impact mental health by decreasing depression and anxiety. In a Forbes article written by the Resilience Institute, personal resilience was said to reduce depression symptoms by 33 to 44% (Purcell, 2020). Mental health is a concern within the responder community, with increasingly high reports of responders experiencing negative mental health symptoms. Abbot and colleagues conducted a study surveying first responders across the US and found that 85% of responders experienced critical stress and 37% had experienced suicidal thoughts (2015). This is one of the key reasons why boosting personal resilience is so important for first responders.
In addition to high levels of stress leading to anxiety and depression, stress can also lead to burnout. Burnout is the psychological strain that is experienced as a result of chronic job stressors (Maslach, 1982). Due to the constant exposure to traumatic events and elevated stress, studies show that responders are at a greater risk of developing burnout (e.g., Benincasa et al., 2022). According to Gallup, employees who experience burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day, 23% more likely to visit the emergency room, 2.6 times more likely to actively seek other jobs, and 13% less confident in their performance (Gallup, n.d.). To combat the dangers of burnout, responders can focus efforts on personal resilience, as personal resilience has been shown to decrease the effect of burnout symptoms (e.g., Gupta & Srivastava, 2020).
We also need to consider the physical dangers of stress when discussing the importance of personal resilience. Around 60-80% of workplace accidents are a result of stress induced factors (Christ, 2016), therefore not properly managing stress can pose a serious threat at work, especially for first responders. When an accident occurs or a mistake is made as a responder, it can be a matter of life or death. Stress can also lead to heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, IBS, diabetes, and more. Thus, stress management is crucial to avoid permanent and long-term damage.
How Do you Build Personal Resilience?
Personal resilience is a skill, and skills can be strengthened. There are many different tools that can be used to build personal resilience, but it’s important that we use tools backed by science which come from reputable sources. The following tools are simple, introductory step that can be implemented to boost your personal resilience:
1. Master Emotion Identification
The first step in emotional regulation is emotion identification. We cannot control our emotions if we do not understand them. The ability to regulate your emotions directly relates to your resilience levels (Troy & Mauss, 2011). Many people struggle with labeling their emotions. Has anyone ever asked how you were feeling, and your answer was “I don’t know”? This is completely normal. To have better emotion identification, practice labeling all of your emotions, good, bad, and neutral. You can prompt yourself to do check-ins that consist of one simple question: “What am I feeling right now?” When able, I recommend referencing an emotion chart such as this one from Cerebral.com: Feelings Wheel.
2. Take Control of your Control Center
A mindset that we can adopt to help manage stress and boost personal resilience is: “I am in control of my thoughts; my thoughts don’t control me.” A lot of individuals have an inner dialogue, sometimes called self-talk. Our self-talk is often subconscious, but if we dial into our self-talk and are intentional about what we are saying to ourselves, it can be very helpful for stress-management. We can also use self-talk to prioritize our thoughts and corresponding actions during stressful work situations. When an incident occurs, focus on what you can control. Having a perception of control in a stressful situation is a key component of resilience, as outlined in the resilience definition above. It can also be helpful to prioritize the importance of certain tasks/thoughts by placing lower importance or less time sensitive items at the bottom of your mental to-do list and revisiting them when you have capacity. But if you put something on the back burner, you must revisit it, or you can fall victim to avoidance.
3. Get Grateful
Gratitude has been found to increase personal resilience levels (Kumar, Edwards, Grandgenett, Scherer, DiLillo, & Jaffe, 2022). Gratitude is the expression of thankfulness or appreciation. Gratitude can promote adaptive coping and personal growth (Kumar et al., 2022), which is why it works so well with boosting resilience. We can create opportunities to express gratitude in our daily life and at work. With the emotion identification that was discussed above, when you identify a positive emotion, go one step further to ask yourself: “what am I grateful for in this moment?” You can also try maintaining a gratitude journal or keeping a gratitude note on your phone to write expressions of gratitude throughout your workday.
4. Stay Present
When a stressful work situation presents itself, it’s important to remain calm and present in the moment. When we don’t remain present, we are less likely to think rationally. Psychologist Dr. Dan Siegel refers to the stress related blow-ups as “flipping your lid” – meaning that we stop operating out of our prefrontal cortex (where we think rationally and critically) and instead operate out of our amygdala (our instinctual brain which controls flight, flight, or freeze). Staying grounded or present is sometimes referred to as mindfulness, and there is a lot of research pointing to the positive impact that mindfulness has on personal resilience levels (e.g., Oguntuase & Sun, 2022). There are endless mindfulness techniques that you can implement, find one that works for you and use it when you are getting stressed at work. Some examples of grounding or mindfulness exercises include:
- Breathing exercises
- Mantras (e.g., I am strong; I can get through this; this is temporary; I can overcome obstacles…)
- 5,4,3,2,1 anxiety countdown
- Muscle tense and release
5. Embrace Discomfort
We need to get comfortable with discomfort. While this may sound like an oxymoron, we’ve all been faced with uncomfortable situations and overcome them – a true testament to our resilience. We can reflect on uncomfortable situations that we’ve overcome to remind ourselves of our personal resilience. We can also seek opportunities to step outside of our comfort zone to help us grow. Overcoming adversity or an uncomfortable situation boosts confidence and personal resilience. Whenever you get through a difficult situation, be sure to celebrate the win, no matter how small. Celebrating small wins can positively reinforce our behaviors.
To seek discomfort, first, try identifying what your comfort zone is, then brainstorm some activities that would be just outside of that zone. Slowly and safely, you can work your way outside of your comfort zone. If you are looking for some examples to get you outside of your comfort zone, you can try: changing up your daily routine, eating alone in a restaurant, learning a new skill, or pushing the envelope in whatever way is meaningful to you.
In summary, the responder community is faced with higher levels of stress due to the nature of their work, and thus, they require higher levels of resilience to help prevent the negative effects of stress. There is a need to invest in personal resilience training and to provide responders with ample tools and resources to enhance resilience levels. Through increased emotion identification, controlling thoughts, expressions of gratitude, staying present, and embracing discomfort, responders can start their journey towards increased levels of personal resilience. An important note about these tools is that they are designed to be simple for easy implementation, but they require practice. The more you use them in all aspects of your life, the more they will become second nature. As new buzzwords emerge, don’t forget about personal resilience and why it should always be a focus in the responder community and beyond.
Abbot, C., Barber, E., Burke, B., Harvey, J., Newland, C., Rose, M., & Young, A. (2015). What’s killing our medics. Ambulance Service Manager Program. Conifer, CO: Reviving Responders, 1-29.
Amico, L. (2022, December 29). Was 2022 the Year of Resilience? Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/12/was-2022-the-year-of-resilience
Benincasa, V., Passannante, M., Perrini, F., Carpinelli, L., Moccia, G., Marinaci, T., ... & Motta, O. (2022). Burnout and psychological vulnerability in first responders: monitoring depersonalization and phobic anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 19(5), 2794.
Christ, G. (2016, May 7). Burnt Out: Stress on the Job. EHS Today. https://www.ehstoday.com/health/article/21917550/burnt-out-stress-on-the-job-infographic
Troy, A. S., & Mauss, I. B. (2011). Resilience in the face of stress: Emotion regulation as a protective factor. Resilience and mental health: Challenges across the lifespan, 1(2), 30-44.
Gupta, P., & Srivastava, S. (2020). Work–life conflict and burnout among working women: a mediated moderated model of support and resilience. International Journal of Organizational Analysis.
How to Prevent Employee Burnout (n.d.). Gallup. https://www.gallup.com/workplace/313160/preventing-and-dealing-with-employee-burnout.aspx
Kumar, S. A., Edwards, M. E., Grandgenett, H. M., Scherer, L. L., DiLillo, D., & Jaffe, A. E. (2022). Does Gratitude Promote Resilience During a Pandemic? An Examination of Mental Health and Positivity at the Onset of COVID-19. Journal of happiness studies, 23(7), 3463-3483
Maslach, C. (1982). Understanding burnout: Definitional issues in analyzing a complex phenomenon. In W. S. Paine (Ed.), Job stress and burnout (pp. 29-40). Beverly Hills. CA: Sage.
Oguntuase, S. B., & Sun, Y. (2022). Effects of mindfulness training on resilience, self-confidence and emotion regulation of elite football players: The mediating role of locus of control. Asian Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 2(3), 198-205.
Purcell, J. (2020, September 14). Resilience: The Key To Future Business Success. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jimpurcell/2020/09/14/resilience-the-key-to-future-business-success/?sh=2c63673d5fde
Ye, Y. C., Wu, C. H., Huang, T. Y., & Yang, C. T. (2022). The difference between the Connor–Davidson Resilience Scale and the Brief Resilience Scale when assessing resilience: confirmatory factor analysis and predictive effects. Global Mental Health, 9, 339-346.
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