How Professionals Who Deal with Stress and Trauma Everyday Maintain Their Resilience

Plus, 7 Things You Can Do Today To Build Your Resilience

Resiliency is not automatic. It’s not something we’re born with like other innate qualities. Instead, it’s a skill learned and practiced over time. We need this skill to deal with stressful situations, crises, trauma and hardships. Resiliency allows us to bounce back, recover and adapt to the changes an unpredictable situation may have caused.

Building and maintaining skills of resilience is important for everyone. Especially if you are in a profession where, as part of your daily job, you are exposed to unpredictable trauma as you deal with one stressful situation after another.

Professions such as peace officers, emergency medical service staff (EMT’s), fire fighters, psychologists, nurses, emergency room docs and other first responders are exposed to intense emotional stress every day.

So, what does it mean to be resilient?

To be resilient is to demonstrate the ability to recover and adapt well after stressful events. This is not to imply that people who are resilient can prevent themselves from experiencing stress or trauma. Rather, resilient people are able to cope with stressful events as they occur. They are able to take care of themselves and avoid the risks associated with lacking resilience.

What happens when one lacks resiliency?

People who lack resiliency have difficulty with sleeping, eating, self-care, relationships, isolation and often numb uncomfortable emotions with substances, including alcohol or food. These behaviors often lead to additional problems as the brain and body resorts to a “protective mode.” “Protective mode” is how our brain and body respond to stress.

Our brain shields us by keeping the experience cerebral, ignoring the emotional impact of the situation. Our body shields us by absorbing the jarring trauma and emotional effects, helping us to ignore the emotional impact. We may feel sick, nauseous, fatigued as our body absorbs the fear, shock or anger of the situation.

If we stay in “protective mode” without dealing directly with the impact of our emotional experience, we are at risk. By continuing to ignore the emotions, by keeping it cerebral or staying fatigued, we put ourselves at risk of burnout.


Sometimes burnout is easy to recognize. You may be well aware that you don’t want to go to work and once you get there, you can’t wait for your shift to end. Those who know

this about themselves, know they suffer from burnout. Burnout develops slowly. Negative thoughts fill your head gradually, leading to further deterioration of what you think and feel. Each day ends with disappointment, slowly eroding at your motivation and passion.

Outside of our job, we seek to relax and get away from the stress. But, when we find it

impossible to relax and feel tension free, stress continues to accumulate. Pretending to be “ok”, or ignoring that stress is consuming us, puts us at risk of extreme fatigue, frustration, depression, emotional depletion and negative dreadful feelings. This often leads to unhealthy coping mechanisms such as isolating, drinking (alcohol), over eating (sugar) and procrastination. Reaching out for support can be an effective solution to burnout. Unless you fall into the trap of “contagious syndrome.”

The Trap of Contagious Syndrome

By now, someone has probably suggested to you that when stressed, you should seek support and talk with someone who understands you and your job. Talking your concerns out is good, right?

It depends. Resilient people reach out to someone they trust who understands the nature of their job or situation. However, people who are resilient are mindful of contagious syndrome. Contagious syndrome is when we reach out to someone, who may understand the stress of our job and may even work alongside us, but they are not proactive. Instead, they are negative, depressed, discouraging and use what we tell them as fuel to reinforce their own negativity and bitterness.

We may not see the negative cycle we just stepped in at first. But, when we realize that talking with this person has reinforced all the problems we were trying to solve, it is sometimes too late. It becomes obvious that talking with this person did not help the situation and in fact, did just the opposite. This is contagious syndrome. Resilient people are mindful of contagious syndrome and are careful who they talk with. More importantly, they are careful who they listen to.

Executive Functions Matter: Why?

Executive functions are thinking skills. They are higher functioning thinking skills that allow us to reason beyond a concrete perspective. Three main executive functioning skills are working memory, mental flexibility and self-control.

Working memory allows you to initiate a task, remember the materials and steps necessary to complete the task and focus until the task is finished.

Mental flexibility allows you to change directions, evaluate alternative options, weigh out decisions and plan ahead.

Self-control is the ability to regulate your behavior and maintain emotional control, regardless of the situation, instead of impulsively reacting to people and events. These skills develop throughout our lives, allowing us to think and behave rationally.

Without strong executive functioning, you may lack resilience and find yourself frequently frustrated by events that push your buttons resulting in constantly mismanaging emotions and behaviors at work and at home. Your family or partner may be very aware of this.

When One or Both Partners Lack Resilience, Your Relationship Can Crash

Couples who lack resilience often approach stressful situations already feeling exhausted, burnt-out, victimized and unmotivated to try overcoming another obstacle. Chronic fatigue, anger and frustration may cause them to project these feelings onto their family, children and partner. They often dwell on the negatives and numb uncomfortable feelings by drinking alcohol, avoiding others, isolating, eating mindlessly or engaging in other risky behaviors. This trend can become a cycle that causes problem after problem until a breaking point is reached.

Resilient people avoid breaking points. They take action to practice self-care and develop resiliency to avoid breaking points.

What do Resilient People Do?

Resilient people understand their emotions, communicate assertively, build on the executive functioning skills and deliberately practice skills that prevent them from being consumed by stress.

Here are 7 specific things you can start doing today to build strong resilience.

  1. Be proactive in life.

Do the simple things. Put gas in your car, prepare your work clothes and uniform the night before and write out a grocery list before entering the store. These tasks will help to avoid unnecessary stress by preventing the problem in the first place. Make a “to do” list and a plan to do it. You can build resilience by being proactive and saving your energy for inevitable situations that cannot be anticipated.

  1. Be proactive in relationships.

Listen to your gut. When you feel that something in your relationship is not right, address it. Don’t let problems fester until it is too late. This does not imply that you should worry about every possible event that may occur. Instead, learn to communicate

assertively, address a potential problem with the parties involved, listen to the other person and resolve the issue before a full-blown crisis occurs. Problems like, “My wife says she is going to leave me,”, “My son just failed the fourth grade,” or “My brother won’t talk with me anymore,” are outcomes that when you are resilient you can avoid because you already addressed the conflict before the crisis.

  1. Protect your “down time.”

When you get a break, protect your down time. Be mindful about what you will do with time away from your usual routine. Build resilient skills by having a plan. Be mindful and make “down-time” quality time whether they sleep, travel, spend it alone or with someone else.

  1. “Why me?”

Stop asking this question. Resilient people don’t ask “why me?” because they expect and accept that shit happens. They wrap their minds around the fact that adversity is a part of life. They spend no energy being a victim to circumstances. Instead, they move forward, regardless.

Start today with step-one. Change the question “Why me?”, to “Why not me?” and “What can I learn from this?” Both of these questions acknowledge that adversity does not discriminate. You are not the only one who has experienced physical impairment,

depression, a natural disaster, sick child, crime, betrayal of a partner or trauma on the job. Resilient people find ways to pull through and accept what has happened. They do not allow the event to erode their being.

  1. What you CANNOT change.

Most people understand that it’s best to focus on what one CAN change. To do this, one identifies the problem and solution and makes a plan that includes each step toward that solution. Having this skill is a sign of resilience. However, the inability to focus on what one CAN change is not what trips people up. What trips people up is

the inability to deal with the frustration, anger and anxiety about what one CANNOT change. Turning away from and accepting what you cannot change is difficult and distracting. Learning to do this is an important resilient skill that allows you to focus your energy toward a solution. Resilient people learn to turn away from the CANNOTS so that they do not waste energy dwelling on what they CANNOT change.

  1. Ask the “help or harm” question.

What do you do when you’re stressed? Do you relax and spend time with friends or family? Do you spend time alone working on a project? Or do you stay up all night drinking until you fall asleep? Regardless of what you do, ask yourself this question: “Is what I am doing (thinking), helping or hurting me?” or if you are a couple building resilience in your relationship, ask, “Is what we are doing (individually and together) helping or harming us?”

This question highlights your thoughts and behaviors, paving way to a strategy that puts you back in the ‘driver’s seat’. This allows you to impact the situation with purpose and resilience.

  1. Follow the “5-minute rule”.

Resilient people learn new skills and new habits so that they can create and maintain a healthy lifestyle. If you want to get in the habit of doing something new, do it … but just for 5 minutes.

For example, if you want to play an instrument, exercise, take walks or integrate any new activity into your schedule, do it for 5 minutes each day. Get in the habit of organizing your time for the activity and initiate it. After it becomes a part of your routine, add on to

5 minutes a few minutes at a time. Before long, the new activity will become a habit, the habit will become one more strength you have toward taking care of yourself.

How do individuals in high stress situations remain resilient without falling apart?

They are consistent. They take care of their emotional needs and communicate about their experiences, dealing with the emotional impact of stress and trauma head-on. They practice healthy habits until they become personal strengths and are integrated into everyday life. They are selective about who they listen to and pay attention to their own thoughts as well.

You can start today.

Skills of resilience are essential, especially if you are in a high stress position personally or professionally. Taking care of yourself is imperative so that stress does not build up and become all consuming. This will allow you to sleep, practice self-care, function in your daily routine of life and continue engaging in relationships with family and friends. Each step you take toward resilience will allow you to center yourself back to a healthy emotional balance.

If you would like more information about how to build resilience in your life, invite Dr. Musarra to facilitate a workshop with your team. You can email Dr. Musarra or call her at (216) 954-5665.

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