Vol. 79, No. 1External submissions

Police officer and firefighters responding to burning car.

The body tallies the stress score

Program teaches resilience to first responders

Building resilience to extreme stress is the focus of a program designed to help Canadian first responders.


Whether you're a new recruit with limited exposure to human tragedy or a veteran officer who's experienced extreme stress over time, there are practices that can support the body's innate healing mechanisms.

The latest neurobiological knowledge combined with mind-body practices, such as specific breathing, can support a healthy brain and resilient responses to trauma. The catch for police officers and other first responders is that they must move beyond the needs of others, and apply these practices for their own well-being.

Contemporary neurobiological research provides useful evidence about brain-hormone-tissue responses to severe stress, and the inevitable results when stress accumulates day after day. Each person has a stress limit. But police officers and other emergency responders will push their coping limits to the edge, and sometimes beyond.

Symptoms of extreme stress

Sooner or later, the body tallies the stress score. Clusters of stress-intrusion symptoms can appear: distressing memories or flashbacks; a sense of pull-back in order to avoid external reminders; memory loss combined with a lack of feeling or an emphasis on negative feelings; problems with hyper-reactivity, anger, irritability, reckless behaviour, or disrupted sleep; inflammatory or autoimmune conditions; and accelerated aging.

These body responses can further lead to compromised memory and cognition, uneven emotional regulation, inappropriate behaviours, severely depleted energy and an overall lack of engagement in life.

Extreme stress is often repressed, thereby subconsciously affecting behaviours as well as deeper aspects of values, dedication and courage. These adverse responses can impact every part of an individual's life. They are normal survival responses to extreme stress conditions — only the responses are stuck on 'on.'

The Strategic Resilience for First Responder Program addresses the impact of extreme stress on first responders, including those recovering from an operational stress injury.

The program presents theory, useful up-front prevention strategies and secondary prevention strategies to use when the stress is building. It also includes face-to-face practice sessions that focus on resilience, hardiness and balance. The University of New Brunswick now offers the program in partnership with the host institution, Langara College, in B.C.

The program features five major resilience protocols. Each protocol in turn emphasizes practices that produce positive health outcomes. Practices such as breathing, for example, activate the parasympathetic nervous system and provide moment-to-moment adaptive coping. This strategy can be used in a crisis as trauma first aid. All the practices need to be understood, experienced and embodied.

The nervous system needs time to heal. While the mind works quickly, cells change slowly. And the secret to resilience resides in the cells. This means that practices that change cellular coding need to be adopted. And resistance to change, due to unconscious habits for instance, must be acknowledged, understood and overcome.

Lasting solutions

Our society has become accustomed to quick, sometimes superficial solutions to health care challenges. There has been little focus on examining root causes and creating in-depth, lasting solutions. The strategic resilience program examines the causes of stress conditions and trauma impacts. Officers will learn to teach their bodies, at the cellular level, how to balance emotional regulation and the nervous system.

The program addresses the resilience needs of both new recruits and experienced police officers. Sharing their experiences is an important part of the program. While it's designed for a wide range of first responders, the program can be targeted to a particular group such as police officers.

As one participant summed up: "It's not normal to think that what we do and see is normal." A new approach is needed to address the impact of extreme stress on first responders. The Strategic Resilience for First Responders program was created with the aim of improving the working effectiveness and personal lives of Canada's front-line responders.

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