The Art of Bouncing Back: 7 Keys to Unshakable Resiliency

By Charles Remsberg  |  

Facing the many challenges of police work, some officers survive and thrive while others crash and burn under the stress and pressures of the job. The difference seems to lie in their respective capacities for resilience—the quality that enables you to solve whatever problems are thrown your way, recover quickly from setbacks, and keep your life moving forward on generally positive terms.

“To some unknown degree, your capacity for resilience may be predisposed by genetics,” says behavioral scientist Dr. Alexis Artwohl, well known in law enforcement for her expertise in police psychology. “Yet to a considerable extent, the behaviors strongly associated with resiliency are within your ability to control.”

In the newly updated and expanded edition of their classic book, Deadly Force Encounters, Artwohl and coauthor Loren Christensen identify critical core characteristics that highly resilient people tend to exhibit.

“It’s not scientifically confirmed that these traits cause resiliency,” Artwohl explained in a recent interview. “But it is well-established that a deficiency or absence of these fundamentals will impair and even destroy your ability to cope successfully.”

Based on the shared practices of adept copers, here are seven key behaviors you can consciously nurture and reinforce to strengthen your personal reserves, through what Artwohl calls “Resiliency Self-coaching.”

1. Refresh Your Brain. “One of the most important, proven, and practical ways to enhance performance and resiliency is to ensure adequate sleep,” Artwohl writes. In contrast, “sleep deprivation destroys resiliency, which is why it is used as a torture technique to break down POWs and others in captivity.”

During sleep, your brain is busy with a variety of critical tasks, including clearing out toxic waste products that accumulate in the central nervous system during wakefulness and “resetting the brain to face each new day.” These are not trivial luxuries but vital essentials, Artwohl stresses. Consistently providing less than six hours’ sleep for this brain work “is associated with a large variety of health problems and mortality.”

Moreover, research shows that insufficient sleep impairs decision-making that involves uncertainty and unexpected change, innovation, the revision of plans, emotional control, and effective communication—all significant and consequential challenges to the resiliency of first responders in emergency situations.

To help overcome obstacles to good sleep posed by shift work, Artwohl advocates, among other things, approved on-duty napping for tired officers and cites findings that personnel working 10-hour shifts tend to get “significantly more” sleep than peers assigned to 8- or 12-hour tours.

2. Control Your Perspective. “Do not allow yourself to become a helpless victim,” Artwohl cautions. “A defining characteristic of people who cope well is their ability to quickly size up a challenge, grab as much control of the situation as possible, and proactively work to enhance” their well-being. “They do not waste time blaming, whining, wallowing in self-pity, or trying to fix what they cannot control.”

Resilient people, she says, tend consistently to “reframe” each obstacle or apparent catastrophe they encounter into “a new challenge from which they are capable of ultimately emerging as a winner.”

She writes: “No one can fully train or prepare for every crazy thing that might happen,” so committing to the philosophy that you will “improvise, adapt, and overcome” whatever life throws at you “is a core foundation of resiliency.”

3. Seek Service Opportunities. “Research shows that people who are resilient feel that they have meaning and purpose in their lives,” Artwohl says. “For many people this comes from serving others. A common theme in the stories of those who overcome even the most horrendous events is their willingness to help others. The helper is helped in the process.

“Police officers are lucky in this regard because helping others in direct and powerful ways is built into their job. The trick is to recognize this and appreciate it for the gift it is and not become bitter and feel unappreciated because of loud-mouth critics or an incompetent supervisor. Don’t lose sight of the big picture; stay committed to your core mission.”

Outside of the job, Artwohl says that resiliency research shows that “those who have deep religious faith often have a health and happiness advantage.” Another common avenue to meaning and purpose can be volunteer activities, from working in an animal shelter to coaching youth athletic teams.

“We are social animals,” Artwohl says. “It’s built into our DNA—we need to feel we are part of humanity and that we are of some special use to our community. Opportunities for that are everywhere.”

4. Embrace Support. The flip side of helping others is opening yourself to receiving support from others, so you don’t feel you have to face all the stumbling blocks of life alone. “We can’t survive well in this world by ourselves,” Artwohl says.

“Establishing and maintaining close interactive relationships with trusted others is a central feature of resiliency,” she writes. One of the characteristics of those who thrive despite adversity “is their ability to seek out and elicit nurturing and mentoring from others.”

In normal times, active social contact promotes a general feeling of self-confidence and well-being. In times of crisis, reaching out to others is pivotal. “Peers, family, friends, mentors, professionals, support groups—all can be sources of comfort and benefit,” Artwohl says. “People who’ve ‘been there’ can be especially important. You need people who can understand your problems, who can be role models for you, and who have strategies you can use to buttress your resilience.

“Don’t let problems fester. When setbacks arise, you can’t just sit in your house and hope for the best. Reach out. Whatever you’re experiencing, there are people out there offering help.”

5. Defend Your Boundary. Resilient people are adept at distinguishing and maintaining what psychologists call “ego boundaries.” For police officers, this can mean you’re able to avoid taking irrational verbal abuse, physical slights, and other annoying behavior from other people personally.

“Cops are crap magnets,” Artwohl says. “They interact with people who are under a lot of stress, who are dysfunctional and mentally confused in many ways, who are enraged over problems of their own making, who are pushing personal or political agendas, and who choose to vent and act out toward the uniform as a convenient target.

“If you allow their bad behavior to get into your head as a personal affront and provoke unprofessional responses, they become the ones in control.

“You need to clearly understand the separation between you and your life and them and their toxic situation. This emotional detachment allows you to think more clearly and rationally about how to handle the encounter at hand and also helps you to counteract the long-term cumulative impact of many such confrontations.”

Artwohl adds that maintaining a strong ego boundary applies as well in dealing with victims, who may be in heart-wrenching circumstances. “You can feel sorry for them and help them to the best of your ability, but it’s threatening to you and your resilience to take their problems and pain home with you.”

6. Fortify Your Health. The importance of good health in maximizing resilience is so obvious that Artwohl and Christensen devote only one paragraph to it in their book. “If you don’t maintain basic health,” Artwohl says, “it will start to erode your resilience. As your health deteriorates, you will have fewer reserves to draw on.”

The blessing of health, of course, is not always yours to control. A losing ticket in the genetics lottery or a sudden devastating accident can override the best intentions and effort. But what you can control “is the same common-sense stuff we’ve known for years,” Artwohl writes. “The key is being dedicated and persistent in the pursuit of a balanced diet, regular exercise, and adequate sleep,” and the avoidance life-destroying addictions.

“If you’re failing in these areas,” she writes, “fix the obstacles.”

7. Express Your Gratitude. “With the inevitable ups and downs of life, it’s normal that at times you’ll feel unjustly victimized, sorry for yourself, and not at all resilient,” Artwohl says. “But heading down the rabbit hole of ‘Poor me’ is not a good place to go.”

One antidote to get you back on track is to get in touch with what’s going right in your life, in order to regain a more balanced perspective. She offers two exercises to “enhance your ‘gratitude attitude.’ ”

– “For one week, do not allow yourself to complain about anything or anybody unless it is a problem for which you can offer a realistic and constructive solution. Otherwise, if you do not have anything nice or neutral to say, do not say anything at all.”

– “Several times a day, stop and consciously think about what you can be grateful for. It can be significant, like good health and a job, or small, such as seeing a beautiful sunset or savoring a good meal when you are hungry.”

This, Artwohl says, can be “a powerful, restorative reminder that even though you may be going through a rough patch at the moment, your life is still better than 99 percent of all the human beings who have ever occupied this planet.”

Note: In addition to a full chapter on resilience, Deadly Force Encounters provides more than 500 pages on psychological tactics and insights for surviving life-threatening confrontations and their aftermath, drawing on the latest human factors research and street experience. The book can be ordered in soft-cover or free Kindle formats through Amazon.com.

For further information, including a chapter-by-chapter Table of Contents, visit Dr. Artwohl’s website: www.alexisartwohl.com.

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Charles Remsberg

Charles Remsberg

Chuck Remsberg is one of the original founders of Calibre Press, Inc. He is a multi award-winning law enforcement author who has penned the most iconic and bestselling books in the industry, written thousands of articles that have been distributed internationally, both through online channels and in print, and has served as Editor-in-Chief for the leading law enforcement newsletters. Chuck can be reached at editor@calibrepress.com.