AVOIDING “WELLNESS” BREAKDOWNS: BUILDING LIFE LONG RESILIENCY By Robert T. Scott, Ph.D., CTS
In the past several years there is a movement afoot within the field of emergency services to refocus and expand the psychological support services normally associated with stress management programs. This new “wellness” direction has been incorporated into many cutting edge Stress Management programs. Behavioral Health and Wellness is both a philosophy and lifestyle that encourages the idea of being aware of and actively working towards better health. As part of this philosophy one is encouraged to take positive action in the overall management of their physical, emotional, social, intellectual, and spiritual sides. According to the experts, the consequences of shifting to this more comprehensive approach will be beneficial to you, your family, and the people you work with and care about.
Building strength, resilience and health
Part and parcel of this new approach is recognizing and building on your strengths and virtues. The field of psychology has recently discovered that there is a set of human strengths that are like buffers against extreme stress, adversity and psychological illness. According to Martin Seligman, Ph.D., the founding Father of this movement called Positive Psychology, those buffering traits include courage, optimism, interpersonal skill, work ethic, hope, honesty, responsibility and perseverance. As members of a profession that is considered to be one of the ‘most dangerous’ and ‘stressful’ in the nation, recognizing and building on these buffering characteristics may provide the needed protection for a healthy and lasting career.
Hardiness & Resilience… What Are These Traits & How Can They be Acquired?
While Dr. Seligman listed about eight buffering traits that can protect you against stress and adversity, for the purpose of this article I am going to focus on the three buffering dimensions known to comprise the traits of “Hardiness”.
This area of investigation has its origins in a landmark study by Dr. Salvatore R. Maddi and his team of researchers at the University of Chicago. They worked with 400 employees at Illinois Bell Telephone (IBT) before, during, and after the greatest divestiture in history. The results of their research showed that almost 2/3 of the people had significant “wellness breakdowns.” There were heart attacks, strokes, obesity, poor performance reviews, demotions, depressions, anxiety states, burnout, substance abuse, divorces, and the like.
However, the remaining third maintained health and performance and actually ended up thriving on the upheavals. Those who thrived maintained three key beliefs that helped them to turn “adversity to advantage.” These powerful beliefs appear to interact together to synergistically motivate coping behaviors that help one to manage change. The three, related, characteristics came to be described as ‘hardiness’. Since Dr. Maddi’s original work in the early 80’s, researchers have consistently confirmed, in study after study, the stress buffering nature of these three characteristics. It’s helpful to remember them by referring to them as the three ‘ C’s ’.
The first characteristic of those who had maintained health in the face of great stress and upheaval had to do with the “Challenging” way they approached life. Those individuals strongly believed that one can learn and grow from positive as well as negative life experiences – they also readily accepted the idea that change is a positive and normal characteristic of life.
This optimistic, challenging attitude about self, the world, and the interaction between the two allowed the Bell employees to stay motivated and able to engage in peak performance, leadership, and health enhancing thoughts and behaviors. In a simplistic way the “glass half-full” as opposed to “half-empty” characterizes this kind of attitudinal shift. It’s also about taking risks, adapting easily to change, and looking at life and adversity with a “give me your best shot” attitude. It might be helpful to take a minute and rate yourself on this characteristic…Do you approach your job and life with this kind of positive, challenging attitude?
The second characteristic that the ‘hardy’ group had was that of “Commitment”. Webster’s Dictionary describes the word commitment as “the trait of sincere and steadfast fixity of purpose. ” Being committed to finding meaningful purpose in life set these individuals apart from the 2/3’s who had wellness breakdowns. Additionally this sense of commitment led them to feel important and worthwhile enough to engage fully in work tasks despite stressful changes.
To involve oneself in experiences in meaningful ways whether it is through your commitment to your career, your family, and/or religion appears to be the second essential anchor in this buffering triad. Take a minute to self-inventory – How would you rate your level of commitment?
The last characteristic is that of Control. Control motivated the thrive group to find ways to influence the outcome of stressful changes, rather than lapse into helplessness and passivity. This element of control has been studied extensively in the field of psychology and was first written about by Julian Rotter (1966) who later devised a personality test to measure this trait.
Basically Rotter’s test allows researchers to assess the extent to which we believe that the outcomes of our actions are contingent on what we do (internal control orientation) or on events outside our personal control (external control orientation). Individuals with an ‘internal control orientation’ would rate high on the Hardiness element of Control. Individuals high on Control tend to perceive themselves as ‘in charge’ and ‘responsible’ for the outcomes of their lives. They tend not to be ‘blamers’ and ‘whiners’ and feel in control of their destiny and direction in life.
Again, take a moment and rate yourself on this factor. To help you out with your rating you can go to the web at:
On this site you will be able to take a short true/false test based on Rotter’s idea of locus of control. It’s only twenty questions and just takes a few minutes. You will receive a score, which will rank you as how you stand on the issue of control orientation, and to a large degree will give you a reading on your hardiness trait of Control.
Finally in addition to the three C’s, challenge, commitment, and control, a fourth element has surfaced in the research – social support. You don’t have to be a ‘rocket scientist’ to have figured this one out. But none the less it has been proven to be a crucial factor in individuals who bounce back and resist stress. In the IBT study, employees who thrived also possessed a specific pattern of giving and getting social and personal assistance and encouragement to, and from, the their work community. According to the researchers, social support contributed strongly to the strengthening of their attitudes and coping.
For fire personnel who work and live together as part of their normal shift schedules, this element may be take on added importance. Creating and maintaining a supportive and encouraging environment may go a long way to enhancing and strengthening your personal hardiness. Additionally, social support from individuals outside your work may be just as important in fostering and building hardiness. Having close family ties, friendships and other avenues for social support (religious / spiritual, community based clubs / interest groups) can add or supplement to what is either missing or available in your work community.
Finally, what we have learned is that if you do not have to be born with these hardiness traits, they can be taught and enhanced within a relatively short amount of time. Currently the military is exploring hardiness and resiliency training. In several recent studies military combat personel who received resiliency and stress inoculation training reported fewer health and stress problems associated with their combat exposure.
In the meantime, take a few minutes to do a personal inventory on the three C’s. If you come up short, pick a few people who you feel exemplify that sense of control, commitment and challenge. Then sit down with them — talk and learn from them about how they acquired as well as maintain those positive attitudes and beliefs.
References & Resources
Bonanno, G. (2004). Loss, Trauma, and Human Resilience. American Psychologist, 59, 20-28.
Kobassa, S.C., Maddi, S.R., & Kahn, S. (1982). Hardiness and Health: A prospective study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 42, 164-170.
Rotter, J.B.. (1966). Locus of Control. Psychological Mongraphs, 80. 1-28.
Martin Seligman. Authentic Happiness : Using the New Positive Psychology to Realize Your Potential for Lasting Fulfillment., New York: NY: Free Press, 2002.
Salvatore R. Maddi. “The Illinois Bell Telephone Story.” <http:// www.hardinessinstitute.com/Bell_Telephone.htm>