Build a first responder mindset
Why do some people break while others thrive in adversity?
All eyes were on Thailand as millions followed the Cave Rescue mission — it was impossible not to empathize with those twelve boys, their coach and, of course, the brave rescue team.
Parents (me included) couldn’t stop but thinking about the families of those kids. We all hoped the rescuers could bring those kids back to their parents. However, the biggest worry wasn’t the abilities of the rescuers, but of the victim themselves.
Do the children and their coach have what it takes to survive until rescuers come their way?
That’s the paradox of resilience: to overcome adversity, you must rescue yourself first. Your mindset, not the event, defines if you will be ‘rescued’ or not.
Resilience is less about who you are and more about how you think.
Your ability to bounce back is not just a means to survive extreme situations — recovering from everyday events is critical to thriving in life. The good news is that the faculty to rise above is not genetic — you can learn and develop it.
Rescue Missions Require More than Grit
“Adversity causes some men to break; others to break records.” — William Arthur Ward
When confronted with childhood trauma, why do some children bear lifelong scars while others overcome them? The obvious answer is because some kids are stronger than others — we tend to believe grit drives resilience.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, grit is defined as “firmness of character; indomitable spirit.” Angela Duckworth, the author of Grit, tweaked the definition to “perseverance and passion for long-term goals.” While her concept of grit has revealed a lot about how high-performers (such as Navy SEALs) can overcome challenging and extreme training conditions — resilience is a different story.
When you feel threatened, embracing a first respondent mentality is more important than reconnecting with your long-term purpose — focus on surviving the challenge in the here and now.
Studies of scuba diving accident can give us a clue: many divers were found dead with air in their tanks and perfectly functional regulators. Ephimia Morphew, an expert on human behavior under extreme conditions, explains why divers pulled out their regulators and drowned. Some people can suffer from suffocation when their mouths are covered. The impulse to remove their masks and regulators to get air felt natural, yet was the wrong response when underwater.
I’ve dived hundreds of times and experienced that impulse more than once. Focusing on the here and now, prevented me from removing my equipment even if my mind was telling me to do otherwise.
Psychiatrist Steven Wolin defines resiliency as the capacity to rise above adversity. When something goes wrong, you must manage to stay in control rather than let the situation take over. Your thoughts, not grit, shape your perceptions and behavior.
We can control how our environment influences us. However, most people mistakenly operate on what Wolin calls “the damage model” — a false belief about the way disease is transmitted. They think that, because they were born in a troubled family, their fate will be doomed too.
A groundbreaking study on resilience busted the myth that a troubled childhood leaves you emotionally crippled forever.
Psychologist Emmy Werner spent 40 years studying kids from impoverished, unstable, and chaotic families. In spite of the adverse environment, 30% of the children grew up to become successful students and adults — many of them surpassed peers from more privileged backgrounds.
The study uncovered three critical factors. A resilient child was ‘lucky’ enough to had a strong bond with a supportive caregiver, teacher, or other mentor figures. Most importantly, the kids that succeeded behave autonomously and independently — they met the world on their own terms. Lastly, they had self-control — they believed that they, not the environment, would define their fate.
The National Scientific Council on the Developing Child studies uncovered similar findings with the addition of spiritual support — religion, mindfulness, and cultural rituals prepare people for the worst.
You can learn to rescue yourself from adversity. How you engage with reality, yourself, and others — your relationships, not grit — determine your fate.
Playing the victim role is an easy way out — you blame the circumstance rather than becoming in charge of your destiny. Train your mind to think like a first responder — stay in charge, don’t let adversity define you.
Meet Your Breaking Point
The good news is that resilience is a skill that can be developed. However, you must continually practice it to stay fit.
Resilience is a constant calculation, as Werner explains here — there’s an ongoing battle between stressors and resilience. Even a resilient person can have a breaking point — the stressors become so strong that they can defeat resilience.
There are many types of stressors — based on duration or intensity — that can put your resilience to test. Some are the result of the environment in which you were raised such as low socioeconomic status, challenging home conditions, domestic violence, parents divorce, etc. — they create a chronic effect. Acute threats such as experiencing or witnessing a violent incident or being in an accident create a more intense effect.
However, resilience is critical to recovering from everyday adverse events, not just from traumatic ones.
Your perception is critical for you to move on. George Bonanno, the head of the Loss, Trauma, and Emotion Lab in Columbia University, coined a new term “PTE” (Potentially Traumatic Event) — an event is not traumatic unless we experience it as such. We can turn an adverse event into a traumatic one or not.
Positively reframing our relationship with reality move us through grief, denial, and acceptance faster. Being resilient is about staying calm and evaluate things rather than merely react to them.
Healing Is an Adaptation Game
Resilience is less about the event but how you adapt to it — do you get paralyzed or can you recover your original shape?
The notion of resilience originates from material science — it describes the property of a material to recover its original shape after distortion or stress.
Only the mind can heal the harm the mind created.
Avoiding to turn events into traumatic ones requires an adaptive mindset — your thoughts can make you vulnerable to external stressors.
Resilience is a dynamic combination of optimism, creativity, and confidence, explains Andrew Zoli in his book Why Things Bounce Back. The author outlines how our beliefs can help us thrive (or not) — we can turn life events into something meaningful by focusing on the learning, not on the experience itself.
Research by psychologist Susan Kobasa uncovered three critical tenets: challenge, commitment, and control.
- Challenge — Resilient people turn difficulty into a challenge — rather than fighting reality, they confront it. They don’t judge events but look to find the meaning and lessons behind them.
- Commitment — The reason you want to get out of the bed every morning fuels your resilience. Having something to fight for — a mission bigger than yourself, your relationships or spiritual beliefs — gives you extra motivation. You don’t want obstacles to derail you from what’s important.
- Self-Control — Free will is the realization that you own your actions. You can’t manage reality, but you can control your emotions and reactions. It’s your choice to waste your energy playing the victim or to focus on rescue yourself from adversity.
5 Ways to Build a First Responder Mindset
1. Reframe (your thoughts about) reality
You can’t control reality, but you can manage how you adapt to it. I usually facilitate survival exercises as part of training teams to become more resilient — the most significant lesson: assess the situation rather than distort it through your emotions.
Cognitive Restructuring is a practical way to how you think about adverse situations and unfortunate events — reframing events is at the core of building resilience. The method starts by calming oneself to identify the real situation and assess one’s emotions and thoughts (“I’m afraid that I’m going to die in this cave.”). Lastly, focus on identifying evidence that supports how you feel (“We are trapped without any communication system to ask for help”) and, also, those who contradict your feelings (“Rescuers can help us if we stay alive, calm, and safe.”)
2. Prepare for the worst
You can’t train to deal with every possible situation, but you can prepare your mind to adapt to unexpected ones. Training for the worst means to prepare your mental muscles — both in strength and flexibility — to overcome hardship.
Expose yourself to frequent rejections. How you overcome rejections in the present determines how you will deal with stressors in the future. Practice creating discomfort in everyday routines (e.g., spend one day without eating or walk to work instead of driving). Start gradually and incrementally add more constraints.
Prepare your mind for the worst so adversity won’t feel so frightening. Especially for those who, when kids, were wrapped in bubble plastic by their parents.
3. Create alternative paths
Creativity plays a critical role in overcoming adversity. Successful rescue missions rely on having options — you never know how plans will unfold in the real world. The ability to improvise on the ground distinguish successful rescuers from not.
Creativity also flexes your brain — instead of seeing problems as an obstacle, your mind turns them into a challenge. Humor can also play an important role — to find new solutions your mind needs to relax first. “Playful humor enhances survival for many reasons,” writes resiliency author Al Siebert. Laughing reduces tensions; playing with a situation makes a person more powerful. As Siebert explains, “The person who toys with the situation creates an inner feeling of ‘this is my plaything; I am bigger than it. I won’t let it scare me.’”
4. Leverage the Power of Relationships
Rescuing yourself from adversity is not a lonely mission. It starts with you but, as stated above, strong relationships are critical to bouncing back.
No one succeeds on their own. Collaboration is critical to driving successful rescue missions. Rescuing yourself is also dependent on the strength of your relationships — lasting, and positive ones drive fulfillment. The same way kids need a strong supportive figure to deal with adverse environments; adults need a partner who can coach and support them during hardship.
Relationships foster resilience too, as Steve Wolin’s work shows. Resilient people do the active give-and-take work necessary to get emotional gratification from others.
5. Mind your spirit
Religious and spiritual support bring us comfort during adversity. Meditation led by the coach helped the Thai soccer team stayed calm — their parents couldn’t believe how relaxed the kids were while waiting for being rescued.
Religious and spiritual activities provide the strength that comes from being part of a community. Also, studies have found that having a moral compass goes along with higher resilience. It’s not just doing the right thing, but acting beautifully what helps us keep our head above the water. Adversity multiplies low self-esteem, guilt, and blame — clean your mind ahead of time, so it doesn’t play tricks during stressful times.
Lastly, acts of kindness have a cumulative effect — it’s energy that will get back on your rescue when you are the one who needs help.
Resilience is not a fixed trait — you can learn and develop it through time. Regardless of the cave you are trapped in, surfacing back, safe and sound, depends on you — learn to control your emotions and thoughts.
Train your mind to face everyday hardship — develop a habit of overcoming obstacles. An adaptive mindset is the best first respondent you can count on. Remember, only your mind can heal what your mind created.