Enhancing First Responder Resilience Through Mindfulness
Resilient responders are a priority recognized by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as part of strategic risk preparedness. After all, as our nation prepares for low-frequency/high-risk events, the ability of our first responders to handle stress and uncertainty is paramount to their success.
Some of the benefits of resilient responders, according to HHS, include:
- The ability to care for yourself and others
- Optimal mental and physical health
- Fewer sick days
- Skills to handle strong emotions in healthy ways
- Greater job satisfaction and career longevity
While HHS concerns itself primarily with national disasters and emergencies (e.g., COVID-19), first responders routinely handle crises at the local level—domestic violence, car crashes, drug overdoses and so on. Law enforcement officers often handle such incidents alone and under intense public scrutiny. Or consider our telecommunicators: They field calls throughout a shift from people experiencing their worst moments, often making split-second, life-or-death decisions about what resources are needed, all based on limited information. You must be resilient to thrive in such environments, especially over the course of a decades-long career.
What Is Resilience?
So what exactly is resilience and what makes some people more resilient than others? Certainly there are some characteristics we are born with. There are cultural characteristics as well that make some communities handle stress and potential trauma with greater resiliency than others. But there are also skills and habits we can develop that lead to greater resilience—as individuals, teams and societies.
Mindfulness and Resilience
Mindfulness and meditation are concepts most first responders would have scoffed at a decade ago. But times have changed. We know now that acute and chronic stress are occupational hazards that deserve more of our attention. Mindfulness and meditation are being explored as means to improve wellbeing and enhance resilience so that stressful events don’t become traumatic injuries.
I was recently talking with a well-known and respected mindfulness teacher about my experience introducing these concepts to first responders. He was fascinated. It turns out first responders are exceedingly rare at the sorts of retreats and lectures he gives.
“What can meditation offer them?” he asked me.
“From my own experience,” I said, “it brings me a little more resolve, a little more resilience. I think that’s it.”
“What does the word resilience mean to you?”
I had to think about this because I didn’t want to give a long, complicated answer.
“Balance,” I finally said. In retrospect, I don’t think it was a bad reply.
Here’s what I mean. For first responders, the job involves coping with suffering and potentially stressful situations rather routinely. Meditation, on the other hand, is time where we can come to accept ourselves and our environment without judgement. We can utterly relax.
There are skills and habits we can develop that lead to greater resilience—as individuals, teams and societies.
But meditation is not a pause on life. Rather, it is a moment in which we are able to return simply being. We train ourselves over time to recognize when our attention drifts during meditation. We bring our attention back our breath, or simply still the mind. As my friend George Ryan, who teaches meditation to Los Angeles Police Department SWAT cops, puts it, “I don’t like the term mindfulness. It sounds like your mind is full of ideas and thoughts and stuff. This is a time to empty your mind and recharge your focus.”
A routine meditation practice does just that. You pick a time and a place and a duration (start short to begin with, say, one or two minutes). Now you sit with good posture (or lay on your back if sitting is uncomfortable). Close your eyes if you want, but I prefer to simply let my eyes relax, and I have found most first responders prefer their eyes be opened as well. Bring attention and intention to your presence. Focus on the breath. If counting your breaths helps, do this. Eventually you might settle in to just being, aware and relaxed. Maybe you’ll sit for 10 or 15 minutes eventually.
Making a routine of this practice, in my experience—and according to many studies—builds resilience. It gives me energy and perspective. It increases my sense of presence and gratitude. It’s really powerful, something I recognize every time there’s a lapse in my daily practice: I am noticeably more susceptible to being lost to emotions and impulses. In a word, I am less resilient.
If seated meditation proves challenging, try other mindfulness exercises, like silent stretching or yoga; paying exclusive attention to simple tasks, such as toothbrushing or putting on your boots; reconnecting with your breath in silence after calls or at traffic lights. Go for a quiet walk or pray—whatever optimizes peace and present-moment awareness. Find some focused habit that energizes you and returns you to yourself as whole and complete. (But don’t give up on meditation easily, either.)
You are resilient. We all are, or we wouldn’t be here. But you also have the advantage of being a first responder, meaning you are doing what most people can’t or won’t do, and you are part of a community of first responders, people there to back up and support you. Meditation and mindfulness are simply reminders of our resilience: balance in an ever-changing world.