Psychological Survival Skills for Before, During, and After Crisis
CIMA Australasian Tour, September 2014
Glenn R. Schiraldi, Ph.D., LTC (U.S. Army Reserves, Ret.)
I’ve come to define resilience as those strengths of mind and character that prevent, and promote recovery from, stress-related conditions (such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, suicide, and drug excesses), while optimizing mental fitness and performance under pressure. To my knowledge, I was the first to use the term resilience training. The road to developing and presenting resilience training has been for me a fascinating one.
After graduating from the U.S. Military Academy and completing my active duty military service, I’ve served over the last 34 years on the stress management faculties at the Pentagon, the University of Maryland School of Public Health, and the International Critical Incident Stress Foundation, working with a wide range of populations.
Back in the eighties, U.S. Army leaders were quite concerned that too many officers were dying prematurely from stress-related heart attacks. So we ran the entire Department of the Army at the Pentagon through various small group stress management courses. Each day a new coping skill was taught, practiced in class, and assigned for home practice. The next session we discussed successes and ways to strengthen the skill. No one was stigmatized. Rather, we explained that we were building on individuals’ existing strengths to maximize health and performance. It was truly gratifying to see officers and civilians letting their hair down, earnestly trying to become better leaders and family members.
I wondered why we couldn’t use a similar small-group training approach with young adults in their formative years. Learning that any combination of the Big Three—anger, anxiety, and depression— leads to a wide variety of medical diseases, I developed a successful university course to prevent these psychological conditions, while building self-esteem, a common correlate of the Big Three. Then 9/11 hit, and two weeks later a tornado swept through campus, killing several. The students looked shell-shocked, and I realized that we needed to buttress our coping course. Combining the best practices from our previous courses at the Pentagon and the university with those from the trauma and resilience research (including mine on WWII combat survivors and Navy SEALS), we developed what was among the first resilience training courses for healthy individuals. We found that we could indeed improve resilience in a big way, while also improving optimism, self-esteem, happiness, curiosity, depression, anger, and anxiety. This was very good news.
Over the last 15 years, I’ve focused on tailoring resilience training to high-risk professionals, such as firefighters, police, military, EMTs, and their helpers and families. My goal has been to prepare these courageous servants emotionally as well as they are prepared tactically and technically—a task that has been immensely satisfying.