Resilience 101: Yoga for First Responders
When I ask my students (first responders and military) what “resilience” means, I typically get answers that are a variation of “bouncing back”. I want to challenge that common definition of resilience so that we may use it to its full potential. If we were to simply “bounce back” from adversity we would maintain only one level of ability. We would never learn, evolve or improve. Resilience must be more than just “bouncing back”. What if resilience allowed growth to be an outcome of adversity? What if every difficult situation you found yourself in you had the tools to become better and stronger than you were before?
Resilience is a skill that is susceptible to training. Yet resilience is commonly brought up in a conceptual manner and never introduced as a tangible or necessary skill set required for a high-stress job. Therefore, the concept of resilience may be agreeable, but the method of achieving it remains unknown or dismissed. Both stress and trauma, as well as resilience, are experienced cognitively (the mind), somatically (the body), and neurologically (nervous system). Therefore, all 3 of those areas must be addressed in a training model for resilience. The training model must include the 3 principles:
- Proactive Training – Although it is never too late to begin your training in resilience, ideally the training must begin before the stressor occurs. When our backs are against the wall, we all fall back on our training. If we want to be able to access resilience at any time, the skill must already be in place. Start now.
- Growth from Adversity – Changing the perception of stress from a threat to a challenge begins the process to an outcome of post-traumatic growth versus post-traumatic stress. This mindset will turn daily experiences into opportunities to become stronger. For more on this, check out Captain Tom Chaby’s Ted Talk
- Effective Recovery – You are only as resilient as your ability to recover.
Effective recovery does not necessarily mean a long night’s sleep. Uninterrupted, deep sleep, of course, is ideal. Yet in a profession like the fire service, that is not always accessible. High stress reduces the body’s ability to produce Melatonin, a vital hormone needed for sleep cycles. If one experiences cumulative stress, the brain waves remain in high Beta and the body cannot regulate brain waves and hormone levels back to “rest and digest”. It is nearly impossible to find sleep when the body and brain are in this activated state, therefore many turn to alcohol or sleeping pills for help. These substances may allow you to pass out, but that does not mean effective recovery is taking place. There are ways for your body to recover and replenish without a full night’s sleep.
A study published in 2010 concluded that, “Meditation appears to provide at least a short term improvement in reaction time performance, and may also provide a longer term reduction in sleep need roughly equal to the time spent in meditation.”
Meditation and breathing techniques allow the brain and nervous system to move seamlessly between activation and regulation, resulting in high levels of performance and effective recovery. At its essence, this is resilience. Meditation can be off-putting for many people who believe the practice requires a lot of time or unreasonable tasks such as sitting still or clearing the mind. The good news is, neither of those things are required. Yoga can be classified as a moving meditation and “mindfulness” is a practice where you observe how you perform certain tasks. Discipline and consistency are more critical to the effectiveness of meditation than length of time within the practice. Twelve minutes is ideal, and if you can only practice 5 minutes a day, that’s fine, just do it as often as possible.
Meditation asks your mind to concentrate on one point of focus that you consciously choose rather than allowing your mind to spiral with thoughts uncontrollably. The point of focus can be your breath, observing the flicker of a candle flame, repeating a phrase, or even a teacher’s voice that guides you. Here are two guided practices to start your training immediately. Take the breathing technique in the first recording and practice it on your own when you find pockets of time throughout the day you can use for recovery.
Here is a guided practice to start your training immediately. Take the breathing technique in this recording and practice it on your own when you find pockets of time throughout the day you can use for recovery.
Foundation Breathing Technique: Three Part Breath
For a full library of online audio and video recordings from Yoga For First Responders, please visit: YogaShield Cyber Academy
9/11 CISM Experience and Perspective
I was asked to share my experience in CISM as it relates to September 11, 2001. I want to note that there is no “I” in “team”. Though this chapter is mine specifically, the larger story belongs to all first responders that experienced 9/11 upfront and head on. We all belonged to one community. We were all one team, no matter where you were. It took me years to even share my story. To this day, I find it incredibly difficult to step foot into the 9/11 Memorial in New York City and even more emotional to take those steps into the National September 11 Museum. The one place inside that museum that is still so gut-wrenching that I have only ever viewed it once, is the Flight 93 timeline, complete with the voices of passengers, their families, and air traffic control. I walked in a strong person. I walked out a broken one. Listening to the timeline and knowing what the responders experienced on that fateful day and the days that followed, left me sobbing uncontrollably for the first time since September 11th, 2001. At the dedication of the Flight 93 National Museum in Shanksville, PA, I represented the firm I was working for a the time. My daughter accompanied me. She was a 9/11 baby. I was just weeks pregnant when our CISM team responded to the crash site. Her world changed that day and she never even knew it. Her entire life would be reshaped by September 11th and mine would be redefined. The field where the plane went down looks much different today. The air smells calm and sweet, soft breezes fill the hallowed ground. That was not at all what we experienced at the time of the incident, but I am glad that there is now a peace that fills the space. Perhaps I really had not processed my experience fully until just a few years ago. In some ways, I am still processing that event and I probably always will be in some form or fashion. It was among the worst days for me as a person, as an American, and as an emergency responder, and it provided clarity in redefining what patriotism means in my world. I was humbled and honored to serve in those moments, after all, it is what emergency responders train for. However, if I ever need to do something like it again, it will be too soon.
I entered the fire service in 1991 and EMS in 1992. I trained in the late 1990’s for CISM and joined the South Central PA CISM Team in the 2000-01 time period. To say I was a fairly new peer responder in CISM during 9/11 is an understatement. I only had a few calls under my belt by the time September 11th occurred and I was woefully unprepared for the large-scale response that we were about to undertake. Several of my fellow team members had responded to an airline crash and to other large-scale calls. During the drive to Shanksville, I listened intently to the stories they shared about those events. In some ways, they were “debriefing the debriefer” years after their shared experiences by recounting their stories. In other ways, they were preparing me for what they knew was about to unfold. As we entered the town of Shanskville, the air was heavy and the atmosphere changed. People who were outside and able to be seen wore a look of heartbreak and numbness on their faces. Their affect was so very different than anything I had witnessed up to that point. They had been changed forever and most of them knew it.
Once on site, we used an access road that the US Army Corps of Engineers had laid just hours before. No road was no problem for them. When we crested the top of the hillside and came to the peak of the road, we were met by the FBI as they credentialed us for either “Disaster Site” or “Morgue” operations. Two from our team were the unlucky ones who got credentialed for both, and I was one of the two. We were to join a larger Pittsburgh-area CISM team to help relieve them of the full CISM support operation. After receiving my credentials, we were given the “speech” from some official person. Basically, they stated we should not use our own personal cell phones. There were designated phones for use by emergency workers. All telephone traffic, cell phones and the like, were all being monitored for terror threats. You would not be having any private conversations during the time emergency operations were in force. We were given a set of “rules” and off we went to the command post for the Pittsburgh team.
Our team began to talk through some possible next steps. We were not sure what we would be met with. There were multiple vehicles and ATV’s driving up and down the brand-new road, shuttling workers and supplies back and forth between the crash site and the mortuary operations site, which was part of a nearby US Army Armory commandeered for use as a make-shift morgue. I was doing my best to not get sick. I think I was sick every day since the beginning of my pregnancy, so I went into “just suck it up mode” to try to overcome my horrible bouts of nausea. After a bit, our team decided that we should not wait for the Pittsburgh team, but instead we should just begin our own operation mode. We may not see the members of the Pittsburgh team for a while. What we could see down the hill from the command post were the remnants of the crash site. We could watch what was happening from our place on top of the hill. Surreal. That is a good word to describe what it felt like. There was no time for emotion. No time to be awestruck at the magnitude of what was happening. It was “GO” time. I am so thankful for the experience that many of our teammates had. It was because of their leadership that we were able to do our jobs.
I still sit in awe of it all, thinking back to those days. There were swarms of people and equipment present on site. We had local emergency services from all disciplines – fire, EMS, police, PA State Police, Mounted PA State Police, ATF, FBI, Pittsburgh’s CISM Team, Army Corps of Engineers, DMORT (Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team) and the National Guard. It did not stop there. There were support services like the Salvation Army, American Red Cross, and other disaster services that were prepared with food and drinks for the teams on the ground. Local residents gave their assistance and equipment as needed, and, when shifts changed, offered their homes as shelter for site workers. Volunteer counselors, medical personnel, chiropractors, massage therapists, and all kinds of support were there for the emergency workers. From the perspective of CISM, we later thought about all these relationships that were formed. There was no social media at the time to keep us in touch. No one really thought of asking for email addresses or phone numbers. It was not an environment that led to texting and the types of technological interactions that we would think of today. These relationships were formed in an emergency and then, like a puff of smoke, they were torn apart. These were individuals we counted on for days. We worked beside them. We talked with them. We laughed together. We cried together. Then, we all left, one by one, until no one was left. That was hard. These are people who were asked to put the weight of the world on their shoulders for mere moments in time, and then they were gone. Temporary relationships. I often wondered how these people I formed temporary bonds with were doing a few weeks, months, or years after those days.
It is incredible to think back and look at the swarms of emotions that we were all feeling at the time, but somehow we had managed to bury them while the critical work was being done. “Talk to a CISM member, to a peer?” “No, thank you,” was the typical response. In a matter of hours, we quickly figured out we were asking the wrong questions. “How are you doing?” was not going to cut it. We all knew how we were doing. We were all angry, hungry and tired. Everyone had a job to do and no one would stop until it was done. Our team quickly changed, as happens on so many critical responses, to adapt to the needs of those on scene. It was not about how they were doing, but rather “what can we do for you?” We asked if people needed breaks, food, drinks, or if they simply needed to call home. We shuttled people back and forth from where they were working to the places they needed to go. We did not focus on the incident, but rather where they came from, if they had family, what their families were doing, etc. Small talk was a vital lifeline for most I helped. We asked about normal, everyday things attempting to talk about everything except what we were facing. For a few minutes, the proverbial elephant in the room did not exist. Most opened up about something. Some were numb and so tired that they could not think about doing anything except getting a quick bite to eat before going back to do the work they had trained to do. It was the simple conversations that made the difference. It was the only normalcy in such an abnormal time.
After September 11, 2001, no one I knew was untouched. For all the first responders in Shanksville, I cannot imagine that anyone returned as the same person they were when they left to help. I am certain that this can be said for all NYC responders and those who responded to the Pentagon. The world felt like it was going to end on September 11th, but it did not. This was a different beast. For days, I had new best friends. I had people that I could relate to, both from our emergency services vocations – whether volunteer or paid – and in everyday life. We cried together. We laughed together, albeit with some guilt. In the end, we drank together, toasted what we had just accomplished and then we said our goodbyes. Today, I am not sure I would recognize one of those friends if I ran into them on the street, but I know that each and every one of them would offer their hand out to help me in my time of need. Shameful to admit, but it is the nature of the beast. Debrief the debriefers? Perhaps we did that on the hours long ride on the way home. If we did, I am not sure how effective it was. Afterall, we just left our friends. Frankly, I remember silence. I remember feeling numb. This could not have possibly happened, right? In the days and weeks that followed, life went on, but I viewed things through a different lens. We all did. We are all still recovering. For some of us, we always will be. As crisis responders, it is imperative that we take care of ourselves. Our teams do not typically run two or three people deep as some other technical teams do. Like many volunteer services, we have limited resources to work with. Our main resource is our fellow team members. Let’s be careful to make sure we address our needs once the call breaks. Regroup and reset. Do that in the days, weeks, and months that follow. At poignant anniversary dates of large traumatic events, check in. Make sure that your fellow responders are moving forward. We do that for those we debrief and defuse. It is also critical we do it for our teams and ourselves. We only have one life to live and we choose to live it giving back to the communities we serve. Let’s take care of us so we can continue to take care of them.
Mental Health & The Global Pandemic
We are about a week into this global pandemic that is altering virtually every aspect of our lives. As first responders we are feeling the extra stress of not being able to self-isolate and the fear that comes with potentially becoming infected and transmitting that to our families. We might feel fear, stress, panic and disappointment over finances, cancelled plans and our unknown future. I made this video to try to address some of that, to normalize those feelings and to talk about what we can do to help ourselves and our loved ones through this difficult time.
Make sure to stay informed from reliable websites like the Central for Disease Control but disconnect from social media when it gets overwhelming. Being physically distant doesn’t mean we have to be emotionally distant so be sure to be connecting with people. Find a new routine that works for you but allow yourself to take downtime and time to de-stress. Talk about how weird and scary this is because we are all feeling it. Don’t forget to make plans for what to do when this is over. This is not going to last forever.
The Pain Never Goes Away
It’s July 2019, five years after being cleared from Non-Hodgkin’s B-Cell Lymphoma, a diagnosis given to me because of my work as a volunteer firefighter in my hometown of Whitesboro, NY. My wife, Sarah, knows the month, and my son and his wife know the month, because I am not the same. It’s the month that I must travel to New York City for three days and undergo Cancer Testing and meetings with my oncologist. I am not the same. Fear of recurrence is common in cancer survivors. Though it’s been five years without any sign of disease, the thought of recurrence is always with me. I worry that every ache or pain is a sign of my cancer recurring. Eventually, I hope that these fears will fade, though they may never go away completely.
Many of you may say, “So what’s the big deal?” It’s the unknown. Thoughts run through your mind while you lay on the table and travel through the screening machines, while you drink the “Gatorade liquid”, and you pray to the Lord that all will come out OK. Your life is in the air, your family’s life is in the air, your friends are on edge wondering what the report will be. You are at the hands of the machine, and you have no way of knowing the outcome. It’s a horrible feeling. It can feel lonely after a cancer diagnosis. At first, you may wonder how you’ll cope. You can find strength in sharing thoughts and feelings with others who understand what you’re going through. I cope with my fear by being honest with myself and my family about how I feel. Try not to feel guilty about your feelings or ignore them in hopes that they’ll go away.
Being diagnosed with cancer can be a nightmare that none of us ever want to go through. But for those of us who must, depression can’t be ruled out. Even if you have someone by your side, you can still feel confused, overwhelmed, sad, or helpless, you can sleep too much or too little, or you can feel extremely fatigued. There are many ways to manage your emotions. Sharing your thoughts and feelings is often a good place to start. Try talking with someone close. Remember, help is always available if you need it. If you are struggling to cope, speak to your doctor, family or friends.
- Some thoughts that I would like to share that have been helpful to me:
- Take care of your body.
- Go to all of your follow-up appointments.
- Get all of your follow-up tests.
- Be open about your fears.
- Keep busy.
I firmly believe that if you BELIEVE that you can beat cancer, YOU CAN!
“If you see something, say something!”
“If you see something, say something!” became a common phrase and a sobering reminder of the change in the American social landscape when terrorism began affecting us on our own soil. We saw it on signs, there were commercials reminding us of the importance of it, and there were even success stories shared where we learned about thwarted terrorism plots that were stopped because ordinary civilians spoke up when something seemed amiss. It’s been almost 2 decades since the tragedy of 9/11, and still that phrase is as important today as it was back then. It doesn’t matter if you live in a thriving metropolis full of target hazards, or if you live in a rural location far from any apparent danger. It changed the way air travel security was handled, and it changed the way we all travel. We have all been reminded of the importance of staying aware of our surroundings and speaking up when we need to do so.
“If you see something, say something!” isn’t a new concept for first responders. We have been trained to speak up when something is dangerous. We are often accused of being too vigilant by our family and friends. We sit in a restaurant in a way that allows us to see the front door, and we know our exits in case of emergency. We drive in a way that assumes someone is going to do something wrong and endanger us. In fire academy we are taught, “Safety is everyone’s responsibility.” Crew Resource Management (CRM) became popular years ago after a commercial flight crashed, and it was discovered the flight crew didn’t speak up about some basic safety issues due to their position or rank in the cockpit. We now teach all first responders to take responsibility for safety. There are hiring boards who pose the question to potential recruits, “What would you do if on your first day at our department you run a fire and see the Chief standing in a collapse zone of a structure that has flame impingement.” We are all taught how to size up a building and read smoke so we can make a better attack on the fire and so we can make sure we make decisions that are safe. Firefighters are taught to ensure all crew members are buckled up safely prior to putting the apparatus in drive. All of these are examples we all have been taught and understand to be normal practice.
“If you see something, say something!” should be used by firefighters when we are concerned about a brother or sister. It should be emblazoned on our brains, and it should be posted in every fire station around the country. We are not asking our firefighters to be trained clinicians or psychiatrists. We don’t think that every firefighter should be well-versed in mental health lingo or be a certified peer counselor. We simply need to care enough to watch, care enough to ask, and care enough to act. In watching, we build relationships with other firefighters. They become more than co-workers; they become family. Once we know who they are and what makes them tick, we can see when something changes. Changes are what we see when others are struggling. It may not be obvious, but we have to look for it. Once we see the struggle, we can ask. It won’t be easy, and most people don’t simply answer what’s going on in their lives without an effort. However, if you build that relationship, you are asking from a position of someone who cares, and you are more likely to get a real answer. The last step is to act. When someone admits they need help, you need to step up and get them the help they need. You don’t have to fix it. You only need to know the resources that are available and how to access them for your firefighter family.
We have a group of firefighters who scoff at the idea that we can suffer from PTSD. These men and women tend to make statements about how soft the new firefighters are. “Suck it up, Buttercup!” “If you can’t handle this job, fast food joints are hiring!” “There’s no crying in the fire service!” These are the go-to phrases heard from these firefighters at fire houses every shift. After a tough call you either need to be silent or you make fun of the call you just ran. There is another group who seems to think that all firefighters are struggling to live or, even worse, are not excelling because we are all suffering from some level of PTSD. These individuals seem to look for negative effects from every call they run. They assume that every firefighter is not going to be able to make it much longer. We need to raise up a generation of firefighters who don’t fall on one side or the other of the huge pendulum swing of firefighter mental health. Real life examples have shown us that when we speak up, we can make a difference. You will not be able to fix every issue being faced by your fellow firefighters, but you can help some firefighters with some issues by simply caring enough to ask.
Those real-life examples are human beings who are now living testaments to the effectiveness of firefighters who care enough to speak up and say something. They are mothers and fathers who are now living life with a new, refreshed perspective, and they are more present for those they love. They are firefighters, driver engineers, lieutenants, captains, and chiefs in America who are making a difference in their communities. They are alive and thriving because of the care and actions of others who encouraged them to get help. Let’s create a fire service culture that is as proud of those accomplishments as we are about the incredible job we do protecting lives and property!