Coping and self care 

Keeping your resilience tank topped up

Find out more

Tips on how to look after yourself

Find out more

Further resources to support your wellbeing

Find out more

If you’re looking to bolster your resilience and get some tools for your Psychological 1st Aid kit, then that's great and you’ve come to right place.

One way to think of self-care is like fuel in the tank of a car. Most of us don’t keep our tanks filled to the top, and some of us are experts at working out how many more miles we still have left once the needle has gone into the red! But no-one wants to run out of fuel, so it’s a good idea to fill up before our tank runs dry and to fix it if it develops a leak.  

Emergency responders and others in helping or trauma-exposed roles can find the idea of self-care unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

Try to think of it as basic maintenance. Self-care isn't selfish, it’s what keeps us going despite the challenges life throws at us and if we look after ourselves, we’ll be better able to help others.

Below are some tips on how you can look after yourself...

When we’re under stress there are chemical changes in our body driven by the ancient survival responses that evolved to keep us safe. These responses prepare us for fight, flight or freeze and they kick in when the threat we face is real, but also when we’re not in danger but under lots of pressure. Exercise and relaxation are two important tools to get things back in balance

Regular exercise will reduce stress and boost our mood. Being physically active uses up the stress hormone adrenaline and produces the feel-good hormone serotonin.

Find an exercise routine that suits your personality and your life circumstances. Some of you will like your exercise to be a social activity, others will take on epic challenges and others enjoy it as time alone. Whatever your preference (gym, mountain biking, zumba, football) the key thing is do it regularly. And remember that exercise doesn’t have to be about sport or fitness. Anything that gets us moving counts, including dog-walking and gardening.

Exercise is often an important tool in an emergency responder's Psychological 1st aid box and when things get more challenging, you exercise more. And then a bit more. Sometimes things get difficult because you can’t exercise, perhaps because of an injury or change in personal circumstances. That’s why it’s essential to have some other tools in your box. Have a look at some of the other suggestions below.
Learn to relax
Like exercise, relaxation produces the feel-good hormone serotonin, lifting our mood and putting more fuel in our tank. Where exercise uses up any excess adrenaline, relaxation slows down its production allowing your internal alarm to re-set and giving you space to recharge and regroup.

Relaxation takes many forms. We may feel relaxed when we’re doing a hobby, listening to music, cooking, washing our car or spending time with people (or animals) that we love. We get most benefit from pastimes which absorb us in the moment and give us a break from stressful thoughts and feelings.

As well as having relaxing activities in your lives outside work, it’s good to have some quick techniques you can use when you feel your stress levels rising. Below you’ll find links to some exercises for reducing physical tension that should help you feel less stressed. You might find that relaxation techniques work quickly for you, or you may have to practice them over time before they start to work. That's OK. Used regularly they will re-set your internal alarm.

Try these different relaxation exercises on sound cloud:
Sleep better
Good quality sleep allows our bodies and minds rest and recharge and is important for physical and mental health. Unfortunately sleep problems are common, with 1:3 of the population experiencing insomnia.

The good news is that if you are having trouble with sleep, there are things that will help. Even if you're working shifts, try to have a bedtime routine and do things before bed that help you to feel calm and relaxed. Have a look at this guide from the Sleep Station for some great tips and listen to Lisa Artis from the Sleep Council explaining the importance of sleep.

If you're having trouble with insomnia you can try the Sleepio app which is an evidence-based programme available for free in Scotland.
Keep a routine
Brains love a routine. So, as much as possible, aim for a balanced routine over your week of work, rest, exercise and fun activities. Try to stick to regular sleeping patterns and mealtimes where possible. And get outside for fresh air if you can.

If you’re starting a new exercise or relaxation routine remember it takes 66 repetitions before something becomes a habit! So if you need a bit of help sticking with it, try setting a reminder on your phone or ask a chum to join you.
Connect with others
We are social animals and our need to belong is part of our evolutionary history. Being connected to others was essential for our survival as a species and is still important today for our physical and emotional health. Some of us need more social interaction than others, but we all benefit from spending time with people we like.

Lots of things can disrupt our connection to the people we care about, from illness to shift patterns, and it’s painful when this happens. Try to balance home and work responsibilities with spending time with family and friends and keep in touch as best you can.
Manage your emotions
We all have emotions, just like we all have mental health. What varies is how much we express them. Lots of things influence this including personality, gender, culture, context, age, background, and who’s around for us to express them to.

As a rule, it’s helpful to express our emotions rather than bottle them up. Sharing our feelings helps us connect with others at happy times and access support when we’re troubled. But you don’t need to change your personality. Some of us are more self-contained and that’s OK. Talking  isn’t the only way to manage our emotions, we can do this on our own through writing and other forms of personal reflection.

The most important thing about our emotions is to understand that they don’t define who we are. We tend to use shorthand when we talk about our feelings, describing ourselves as excited, happy, sad or stressed, when what we really mean is that we’re feeling excited, happy, sad or stressed.

We don’t have to change the way we talk about our feelings but it’s important to know the difference. If we remember that emotions come and go, then we have a better chance of coping with the painful ones. Understanding that we are not defined by our emotions is an essential step in learning to manage them.

We call our ability to manage our emotions "distress tolerance". Think about what happens when an infant cries and a caring adult gives them a cuddle. In this interaction the infant learns two things, they learn that emotions can be soothed and they begin to learn how to soothe themselves. Essential skills for life.
Kindness and gratitude
We know from research that helping others is good for our wellbeing. Kindness creates and strengthens connections between people. Helping others protects us against stress, can relieve anxiety and depression and lower our blood pressure. Being part of a helping organisation is one of the things that can help you stay well, it’s an essential part of Your Protective Armour.

Have a look at The Little Book of Caring Ways.

Some of us have older relatives who tell us to “count our blessings”. They are sharing an important message about how gratitude is good for our mental health. Making a habit of appreciating the small positive things in our lives (and writing them down) can make a big difference to our mood and general wellbeing. Writing them down have been proven to help and if you need help to get started with this you can find it by visiting this website.
Aim for realistic optimism
Optimism is a mental attitude where we are able to focus on the positive and tend to believe that things will work out OK in the end. Pessimism is the opposite, and is when we tend to focus on the negative and believe things will go badly.

Research tells us that people who are optimistic tend to be happier, healthier and cope better when life is difficult. Why is that? It turns out that there are two important things involved in optimism; a sense of hope and of agency, a belief that we have some control over our lives. These two things that help us keep going when things are tough.

We're not talking about unrealistic optimism, where we assume nothing bad will ever happen to us or that we're invincible. Instead, realistic optimism  is when we have our eyes open to the challenges of life, an understanding of what we can and can't influence, and can retain a sense of hope. 

Our personalities and upbringing mean we're naturally inclined towards optimism or pessimism. However, we can learn to be more optimistic by listening in to our thoughts and watching out for negative self-talk, and by learning to focus and be grateful for the good things in our lives.

If you want to find out more, Southwick and Charney's book, Resilience - The science of mastering life's greatest challenges includes a great summary of the role optimism plays in our protective armour.
Listen in to your thoughts
The way we think has a direct impact on how we feel and behave. We're constantly making judgements  about ourselves, others and the world around us, and while we're doing this we don't always realise that these interpretations are just that, interpretations. They're thoughts, not facts.

To illustrate this, let's imagine you're walking down the street near your home and a neighbour passes by without saying hello. You could have several reactions to this depending on your judgement of the situation, If you think they're ignoring you, you may feel hurt, worried or angry. Your thoughts affect your emotions and what you do next. If you're hurt or angry, you may limit future contact with them. If you're worried you might spend time trying and work out what you've done to upset them. However, if you notice they don't have their glasses on, you'll wave and go over to say hello.

Context makes a difference too. During Covid19 we weren't offended by someone stepping away from us.  Instead we recognised it as social distancing, to keep one another safe.

It's important to understand this connections between thoughts, feelings and behaviour, and to remember that our thought are just that, thoughts. Because we think it, doesn't make it true. There are lots of common thinking errors including:

  • Catastrophic thinking - where we assume the worst
  • All or nothing thinking - where we find it hard to hold onto shades of grey, e.g. we're either the best or a failure
  • Over-generalising - where we take one experience and assume it will apply in every situation
  • Mind reading - where we believe we know what's going on in other people's minds. We don't. We're guessing.
  • Emotional reasoning - we assume because we feel a certain way that our thoughts about the situation are true
  • Fortune-telling - where we make predictions about how things will work out in the future
  • Filtering out the positive - where we pay most attention to the negative things that happen and ignore the positive exceptions

We will all make some thinking errors at some times; it's part of being human. However it helps to listen in to the way we talk to ourselves and to check that we're being both fair and kind. Being able to do this gives us cognitive flexibility and that helps with self-compassion. A good rule of thumb is to listen in to your thoughts and ask whether you would say these things to someone you care about. Be your own best friend.

If you'd like to find out more about this, have a look at the Living Life to the Full and Headfit websites at the bottom of this page.

Watch out for alcohol or drugs
Having a dram or a glass of wine is what lots of us do to relax. And what we do when spending time with friends. But drinking to escape or forget problems can make things worse. In addition to the well known health risks of drinking too much, alcohol is a depressant and stops our brain’s natural processing. Watch out if you need alcohol or drugs to get to sleep, or if your intake increases.

If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking you can find information about getting help at NHS inform.

If you have worries about your own or someone else’s drug use you can find information about getting help at Know the Score.
Supporting your wellbeing

Check out these free apps and online resources...

HeadFIT for Life
Resources for developing your mental fitness.
Get Daylight
An app that helps with stress and worry
Live life to the full
Free online courses on low mood, stress and resiliency
An evidence based sleep improvement programme

Your service, your Lifelines

Visit the web pages of Lifelines Scotland Ambulance, Fire & Rescue, Police or Volunteer Responders for extra resources tailored to each service and more information about the specific help available from different organisations.