Gratitude for resilience: Seeing the forest despite the trees
By encouraging gratitude among members, fire departments can cultivate a culture of resiliency, as members are better able to bounce back from difficult situations
By Shara O'Neal Thompson
The fire service has devoted much attention in recent years to mental health. We are now seeing increased awareness of mental health challenges, more peer support groups, and a growing number of employee wellness programs – all steps in the right direction. An additional way that firefighters can improve their mental health is the act of practicing gratitude to build resilience.
Gratitude has become a popular part of wellness programs, as research proves its impact on reducing lifelong depression. But what does this look like in the context of everyday life and, more specifically, fire service life?
Sometimes when we focus too much on negative aspects of our life, we neglect to see the bigger, more positive picture. As such, it’s important that we consider how firefighters can put their shift experiences into perspective by seeing the forest despite the trees.
Everything is relative, so we must put things into perspective for our well-being. When we express gratitude, a psychological shift happens, which is vital for our mental health and long-term fire service careers. Taking the time to be grateful for the people, the pleasures and the experiences in our lives allows us to build individual resiliency. Further, by encouraging gratitude among members, fire departments can cultivate a culture of resiliency, as members are better able to bounce back from difficult situations, trying calls and uncontrollable occurrences.
Suppose a firefighter is experiencing depression to the point where they are hypersensitive to anything negative that happens on duty. They may ruminate about past events and become inflexible in their thought process.
According to Dr. Steve Joordens, professor of psychology at the University of Toronto Scarborough, “When we think of your classic depressed person, that person is sometimes described as having cognitive biases or maladaptive cognitive biases” (Joordens, n.d.). Cognitive biases can interfere with an individual's activities of daily living or their ability to adjust to and participate in specific settings.
Before we proceed, let’s first define cognitive bias. Dr. Amos Tversky and Dr. Daniel Kahneman's introduced the term in the 1970s to describe people’s systematic but purportedly flawed responses to judgment and decision-making. In these circumstances, psychologists often use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), which helps people recognize maladaptive behavior and modify or replace that behavior with a positive mindset for resiliency. One common therapy technique is expressing gratitude and reflection.
What does this look like in daily life? As we go through our day, we may have both positive and negative experiences, but for a depressed firefighter, for example, the adverse events get more attention than the positive. They can only think about those negative events that have accumulated until the next bad thing comes along. Then they get hypersensitive to that event as well, and the process continues. When they look back at their day, it seems like a day full of adverse events simply because the positive ones were not attended to nearly as much as the negative ones.
What is happening here is that this firefighter has maladaptive cognitive biases and is losing the forest for the trees. They are hyper-focused on the negative rather than expressing gratitude for the positive and therefore losing the fuller picture. Instead, they should exercise seeing the forest despite the trees.
When we focus on negative experiences alone, our perception of the forest will only be the bad trees, not the good ones. We then lose the fact that the negative events are all we can think about, shading any positives. Maladaptive cognitive biases can leave us stressed and emotionally drained, with a generally pessimistic, gloomy outlook. When more negative calls happen, we get trapped in a negative mindset pattern that there is another bad one to add to the list. This thought process can weigh heavy and make us think that every day is horrible.
Gratitude pulls us out of maladaptive behavior patterns and helps to build resilience. Dr. Joordens says cognitive behavioral therapy as a general strategy helps change depressed people’s attention to help them focus on positive events. That way, when the next positive event happens, we will attend to it more, being hopeful about the next one and focusing on modifying the negative ones.
Gratitude meditation and reflection
According to a 2008 study published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, practicing gratitude made distressing memories less troubling and less likely to intrude into a person’s awareness (Watkins et al. 2008). Gratitude meditation and reflection are simple ways firefighters can build resiliency for their mental health. This involves meditating into a relaxed state and directing self-awareness as a visualized presence in nature.
The first part of gratitude meditation and reflection is to settle into a calm, peaceful posture to get centered, then take a few deep breaths through the nose and out the mouth while closing the eyes, thinking of everything to be grateful for in their lives.
Visualization should imagine oneself in a forest filled with trees, focusing more on positive things and joyous events while recognizing that the negative will also be a part of that overall picture.
Each person, thing or event should symbolize a tree in the forest. Firefighters should turn their attention to themselves and say positive affirmations like being grateful to have the ability to communicate, to learn from the past and plan for the future, to overcome obstacles they are currently experiencing, and to be grateful.
As firefighters practice gratitude meditation and reflection, they should let their self-awareness move to their immediate environment – those growing trees that are taking root and blooming.
One strong-looking visualized tree could reflect their health and fitness level, knowing that not everyone enjoys pain-free strength, energy and stamina. This tree representing good health should look full, green and vibrant. Another sturdy tree with thick branches could represent family and extended friendships that provide unconditional love and remain as support systems despite disagreements. Other trees could represent their children if they have any, which signifies the ability to be grateful to watch them grow and blossom each year.
Another tree far from this visualized forest should represent their long-term fire service career. Not everyone has a meaningful job and enjoys instant gratification from seeing the difference made in people's lives.
As a firefighter exercises gratification meditation and reflection, it is essential to visualize the distant career tree growing taller, the trunk widening, and taking deeper roots with each passing year. One example of gratitude a firefighter could practice is the acknowledgment that most private sector jobs no longer have pension plans, and employees must save and invest for retirement on their own despite working for the same company for 20 years. A meaningful career with a retirement pension is something to be grateful for because so many others do not have that option.
Other trees could represent positive, memorable career experiences, like extinguishing and saving people from house fires, extricating people from vehicles, delivering babies, saving people from cardiac arrest, and all those children who wave happily when the fire engine or ambulance drives past. Other positive trees could represent working for a desirable department with great culture, inclusion and belonging, pride for high standards, psychological safety, fairness, sound civil service policies, and/or support from city leaders regarding their well-being and mental health.
Seeing the forest for resilience
Fire administrators should intervene when maladaptive cognitive biases are recognized, so the team does not become adversely affected or model the behavior.
Officers can use several approaches to interrupt the negative cycle:
- Have the team write down three positive things each shift on the training board and then discuss those aspects as a group.
- Regularly practice team gratitude meditation and reflection, and encourage it individually, especially after a traumatic event.
- Encourage members to reminisce about past calls that demonstrated great teamwork – a simple way to strengthen these memories.
Further, there are several ways firefighters can maintain resilience:
- Contextualize bad events and know they are part of seeing the forest despite the trees, reducing the depressive effect of adverse events.
- Practice gratitude and give more attention to the positive trees in their visualized forest than the negative ones that represent difficult situations, trying calls or uncontrollable occurrences.
Not giving the negative trees more power in our minds than deserved and ensuring the positive trees overshadow them will help build firefighter resilience.
Resetting our focus
Practicing gratitude for resilience does not mean denying the negative aspects of life. It means focusing more on the positive and being grateful for the people and the experiences in our lives that are sometimes overshadowed by the negative. We can build resilience for our mental health when we conceptualize the overall positives of our careers along with the negative. This way, firefighters can see the forest despite the trees.
Joordens, S. (n.d.). Mental Health and Resilience for Healthcare Workers. “Everything is Relative.” Coursera.
Watkins, P. C., Cruz, L., Holben, H., & Kolts, R. L. (2008). “Taking care of business? Grateful processing of unpleasant memories.” The Journal of Positive Psychology, 3(2), 87–99.
About the Author
Shara O'Neal Thompson is a second-generation firefighter-paramedic. She was the first female firefighter-paramedic for the Town of Addison (Texas) Fire Department and the first female cadet to graduate from Collin College Fire and EMS Academy. Thompson is a Texas-licensed paramedic and graduate of the University of Texas at Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas, and a summa cum laude graduate from The University of Texas at Dallas with a degree in interdisciplinary studies, dual in psychology and sociology. She was a Who's Who Among Students in American Universities and Colleges National Leadership Inductee, as well as a top graduate of the Northwestern University Leading Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Graduate Certificate Study (2021) and the Leading Racial Equity and Inclusion in Organizations Graduate Certificate Study (2022), and she earned a Cornell University Diversity and Inclusion Graduate Certificate Study (2022). Thompson is pursuing a master’s degree in human relations and inclusive leadership at the University of Oklahoma. Connect with Thompson on LinkedIn.