In this series of blog posts I’ll cover some of the techniques that I use to build resilience to acute stress and trauma. I use this bank of resources both personally and with clients, and have seen first-hand the positive effect that using a mixture of these techniques can yield.
I will, wherever possible, relate tools in the kit back to real life cases, although names have been altered and permission to use these real life stories granted.
Maintaining resilience at work
Work demands and mental health risks to carers are ever increasing. Research has shown that people in caring roles are at risk of vicarious trauma, cumulative stress, burnout, and compassion fatigue. So how do individuals in caring roles remain resilient and continue to be able to work in environments where they are at risk of being exposed to traumatic material, directly or indirectly?
The resilience toolkit (Dunkley, 2018)
Building resilience is about learning to respect and take care of yourself. I have created a resilience toolkit acronym using the word RESPECT. I recommend accumulating a good balance of resources that cover the following areas:
I suggest you try out some of the techniques in order to create your own personal resilience toolkit, ready to use when needed.
Each post in the series will cover a mix of tools from this toolkit. In this post, I cover relaxation and education.
The first step towards stabilisation is relaxation
Calming the system when we are traumatised or feel acute stress is essential, and the first step in stabilisation.
A simple breathing exercise is to take a deep breath in, hold for a couple of seconds and make the ‘out breath’ longer than the ‘in breath’. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, avoids hyperventilation, and allows our mind and body to relax.
Yasmin is an aid worker, living and working in Lebanon. Reflecting on how chaotic her life has been in recent years, she says, I’ve been rushing from one thing to another. I feel like I haven’t breathed properly for a long time.’ After a great deal of resistance she finally started using breathing and mindfulness exercises. She no longer suffers from acute stress, and uses her practices daily whilst at work.
This philosophy is similar to Hebbian’s theory that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’ (Hebb, 1949). Newberg found that when studying individuals, of various faiths, during prayer, their frontal lobes lit up (linked to positive mood), but the pariental lobes (linked to sense of self) went dark. Individuals described this ‘as a sense of oneness with the universe’.
Becoming more aware through education
I often refer to the statement ‘Facts Fight Fear’ as focusing on facts enables the prefrontal-cortex part of the brain to stay on line, thus reducing anxiety levels.
Tim, a logistics manager, arrived for his trauma counselling in a panic, clearly having just experienced a flashback. ‘I don’t know what happened – it just came out of the blue. It started at the gas station around the corner, as I was filling up my car with petrol.’ As we explored this further it became apparent that the smell of petrol had triggered his flashback of an explosion in Juba, where one of his colleagues had died.
In my next post...
In my next post, I’ll cover building resilience to acute stress and trauma by using social and physical tools. We’ll look at using human attachments to curb our stress levels, and some of the physical ways to release tension.
You can also find an in depth look at the entire toolkit in my book, Psychosocial Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers, available from Amazon.
In the meantime, feel free to comment with any questions or thoughts.
Edited by John Kirkham