Firefighters are tough. Walking into burning buildings and putting out the flames take a great deal of both physical and mental resolve. Spending months and years of their lives training so that, when the call comes, they are ready to jump into action and save lives, firefighters sometimes seem invincible to the public-and maybe even to themselves. But are they? What happens after the flames are doused and the fire is out? Where do firefighters go, and what do they do?
Psychological studies show that first responders, a group that includes not only firefighters but also police officers, paramedics, and emergency room workers, are at greater risk for work burnout, compassion fatigue, alcoholism, and more. These statistics call attention to the fact that, along with the stories of courage and bravery, there is a darker side to firefighting that needs some light shed on it.
Helping the Helper
Helping the helpers is the concept most often used when discussing the often overlooked needs of people who have chosen to be in helping professions. Used with professional groups ranging from trauma psychologists and social workers to police officers, firefighters, and humanitarian aid workers, helping the helper refers to noticing and paying attention to emotional needs that have often been neglected amid the enthusiasm of these helpers to do their work.
There are two parts to consider in how we help ourselves, the helpers. There is the day-to-day maintenance that is required if we are to stay in tip top condition. Then, there are those special occasions after particularly difficult or horrific events we have encountered in our work that require special attention. Here, I will focus on the first part of helping the helper, the daily routine.
How we normally take care of ourselves can greatly affect the way we perform under stress. Just as we all know how important it is to exercise, eat well, and get enough sleep, there are activities that we can engage in that will keep us mentally fit and healthy. The concept of resilience is particularly helpful here.
What is Resilience?
Picture a spring. When you compress the spring, or when the spring is under a lot of pressure or stress, it contracts. When you stop pressing on it, or remove the stress, the spring bounces back. This captures the essence of resilience. It is a flexible attitude that allows for a wide range of emotions and reactions. It is the ability to withstand stress and to bounce back after adversity. A resilient person will feel pain, anger, sorrow, and fear without worrying that he will be swallowed up by those feelings. Allowing yourself to leave these feelings and move on to happiness, joy, excitement, and fun is the essence of resilience. That spiral motion of movement between the more difficult emotions of pain and sadness to happiness and joy characterizes resilience. The ability to access a variety of behaviors and activities and to be flexible and decide what works for you right now is true resilience.
So how do we build resilience? How do we let ourselves express a wide range of emotions in a healthy and constructive way? Can resilience, in fact, be built? In the Building Resilience Intervention (BRI) model that I developed and implemented worldwide, there are four essential steps. Learning about these steps and practicing skills related to them can greatly enhance coping in populations that have been exposed to a large variety of traumas ranging from natural disasters to terrorism and war. Specifically, first responder teams who have trained in the BRI have reported improvements in stress level and feelings of well being as well.
The first step in helping yourself is developing self-awareness, self-knowledge, and understanding how your mind and body are connected. For a start, take an inventory of your stress level. What stresses do you have in your life? Are they ongoing? Transitory? Are they things that are in your control or out of your control? Examples of ongoing stresses are elderly parents and physical illness. Stressors that are more short term include an unexpected bill, a deadline at work, and covering shifts for a friend on vacation. Check out where your stresses occur. Are they mostly at work? In the family arena? Somewhere else? Of course, none of this will change the stresses in your life, but mapping them out can help you become more aware of what is going on in your life and examine what you might change and what you cannot. Often, sharing your results with a partner or friend can be helpful as well.
The second step in building resilience is learning how to communicate about feelings. Research shows that the single most important feature in helping people cope with adversity is the amount of social support they have from family and friends. Learning how to reach out and talk to family members about how you are feeling and what is going on in your life and learning to listen to them can go a long way toward strengthening existing social networks. In my experience, firefighters often have difficulty sharing their work life with their life partners. They often feel that nobody outside of the station house can actually understand them. Learning how to break down those barriers and share with the important people in your life can create a sense of support that is invaluable.
What do you do when the going gets tough? How do you help yourself? What works for you? Do you call a friend, go fishing, read a book, or take a nap? Examining how you normally cope with stress and adversity and expanding on those existing strengths and resources comprise the third step in resilience building. Most people have a preferred method of dealing with stress or hard times. For some, it is physical like going for a run or taking a bath. For others, it may be reaching out to a friend. Yet others prefer to curl up with a book or watch a movie.
Beware of the quick fix of alcohol or drugs. They may provide temporary relief but should not be used as a consistent crutch over the long term. Often, the use of alcohol or drugs quickly turns into abuse and further exacerbates existing problems. Trying out new ways of coping and finding new hobbies and activities that you enjoy are important steps in resilience building. The more resources you have at your fingertips, the better off you are. That way, if one avenue is closed, you always have something else to try.
The fourth step in resilience building is finding meaning. Firefighters can easily find meaning in the hard work they do saving lives, but they may have a harder time understanding the tragedies that they encounter over the course of their careers. Finding a way to talk about the existential dilemmas they face that may include feelings of helplessness and crisis in belief can be an important part of resilience building.
Taking the Steps
Taking care of yourself, not only physically but also mentally, will keep you prepared and in a state of fitness for whatever life has in store. This takes both time and attention, but the results are well worth it. Just to recap, spending time on the following four essential steps will lead you to the road of resilience:
- Learning self-awareness and understanding your stress.
- Communicating emotions.
- Identifying coping resources.
- Finding meaning.
Working on this with a work partner, or one at home, is a great way to go.
Naomi L. Baum, Ph.D., is a psychologist who internationally consults in the field of trauma and resilience. She is the former director of the Resilience Unit at the Israel Center for the Treatment of Psychotrauma where she created the Building Resilience Intervention (BRI), a program she has implemented extensively in both Israel and internationally in post-disaster and post-trauma environments. Baum directs the International Summer Course-Trauma and Resilience from the Israeli Perspective, a course offered in conjunction with the Hebrew University. She is the author of two books, Life Unexpected: A Trauma Psychologist Journeys through Breast Cancer, and Free Yourself from Fear: A Seven Day Plan for Overcoming Fear of (Recurrent) Cancer. Baum’s Web site is: www.naomibaum.com.