7 things first responders can teach you about holiday resilience

December 10, 2020

by Dr. Anna Courie - Director, Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T

First responders are a tough breed – equipped with unique traits that allow them to run towards problems, rather than away from them. And many people see them as  heroes because of these characteristics that make them who they are. 

When I think of people who can teach me habits that can make me a better person or help me respond to a tough event, I think of first responders. They’re incredibly resilient. And their ability to search for solutions to a problem provides a unique perspective on how to respond to the challenges inherent in this holiday season – made even more so with political and social unrest, and an ongoing global pandemic.

Let’s take a look at seven skills of first responders that can help you build your personal resilience, even in the middle of a complicated holiday, and improve your overall wellness.

1. Be mindful.

Veteran fireman and paramedic Ryan Fields-Spack, practices the habit of mindfulness. Mindfulness is a key habit of resilience that practices the tactical pause to self-asses mind, body, and spirit, and consciously breathe through the points of tension. These exercises facilitate coping, relaxation, and understanding of  complicated feelings and events. “Mindfulness is a Superpower,” says Ryan Fields Spack quoting Dan Harris. “This is especially true for public safety. Whether a structure fire, officer in distress, or cardiac arrest call; a 5-second mindfulness moment immediately grounds you and allows for better decision-making in stressful situations.”  The BeMindful organization is now offering online mindfulness courses. And first responders can get a professional discount with the code FIRSTRESP10.

2. Maintain your exercise and healthy eating habits.

First responders know they need to be physically ready to respond to the demands of their jobs. That means a regular physical activity and food choices that fuel their body for excellence. Exercise is the number one thing you can do to improve resilience. It doesn’t cost a dime. But it improves your mental, physical and spiritual health.

3. Seek purpose and meaning from events.

First responders see both the best and worst in humanity. The steady toll of critical events can wear on even the strongest person. Evidence suggests acute and sustained stress can accumulate over time, leading to more complex health issues. These include anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress, and others.  Some veteran first responders have learned they can grow from these events. This is called post traumatic growth and the process incorporates the practice of searching for purpose and meaning, even from the most painful experiences. Kelley Adley, a former law enforcement officer from Texas uses his faith to discern meaning and purpose. “Remember this: You have never really lived until you have done something for someone who can never repay you,” says Adley. “This is the life of a first responder. Train your mind to hear what your higher power whispers and not what the enemy is shouting.”

4. Fight for yourself. 

First Responders will be the first to tell you to call for help when you need it. They also know that it’s important to seek help for themselves when events try to overwhelm your spirit. If you are struggling this holiday season, pick up the phone and call or text to just talk about your feelings. Sometimes, just getting things off your chest can make a huge difference. Talk to a friend, a loved one, a chaplain, or other person you trust. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone you know, you can always text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

5. Practice optimism.

Seeking out evidence of goodness, kindness, and hope fuels optimism. This optimism is one of those traits that gets first responders out of bed each day and back to work in serving the public. Optimism and gratitude are critical characteristics of the resilient individual. While your holiday may not be the one you traditionally have or envision, it can be just as meaningful. Perception often colors our attitude about events. But if we practice optimism, we can create a positive experience, even when things don’t go as planned. Optimism and gratitude are some of the easiest habits to adopt. Try each day to name three things for which you are grateful. That’s it.  Name those things that bring you gratitude, optimism and hope. If you hunt the good stuff, the good stuff will find you.

6. Be flexible.

This holiday will be different. First responders are used to different kinds of holidays. They often have to work over traditional family events around the holidays. And this has taught them two things:

a) Celebrating with family and friends doesn’t have to be tied to a specific date. You can make the most of traditions with loved ones, no matter when it occurs.

b) Celebrations with co-workers while on call can be as meaningful and valuable as those at home. There is something special about sharing Christmas morning with a co-worker while serving the public good. No, it’s not blood family. But it’s another kind of family. If you can’t be with family this holiday, think of ways you can be flexible with your holiday plans and still find meaning and memories.

7. Build relationships.

No one knows first responders like other first responders. They are a close-knit group that take care of each other. Having relationships is key to personal resilience. Focus on identifying groups and individuals that have a common, shared experience. While the current pandemic may make it difficult to find those relationships face to face, there are digital options available. The ResponderRel8 App is an anonymous peer-to-peer chat app that provides a platform for you to connect, celebrate, and commiserate with other First Responders on topics related to the public safety experience. ResponderRel8 has a sister app called iRel8 for individuals who are not First Responders, but are seeking social connections in a digital world.

Mike Bostic, a retired Law Enforcement Officer in California, also recommends building relationships outside of work. “For your family’s sake, build strong relationships outside of work and include your family,” says Bostic. “They suffer the effects of our business as well. I chose my faith community and these relationships are  significantly more important than my policing career. That space away grounds me in truth and moves me away from group think.” Relationships are of critical importance to your mental and spiritual health.  Cultivate them.

You may be facing an “unprecedented” holiday season. But there are things you can do to face it with resilience. As first responders continue to run towards the problems that  face us, we can all learn from them ways to come out of the holiday not just surviving but thriving. 

Dr. Anna Courie, Director of Responder Wellness, FirstNet Program at AT&T is a nurse, Army wife, former adjunct professor, and author. Anna holds a Bachelor’s in Nursing from Clemson University; a Master’s in Nursing Education from the University of Wyoming; and a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from Ohio State University. She is a passionate Clemson football fan; loves to read, cook, walk, hike; and prior to COVID-19, was an avid traveler.