RESPECT: A Resilience Toolkit for Mission Workers

by Fiona Dunkley
Posted on 1st August 2018

Building resilience is the ability to bounce back after difficult events. How do we increase our ability to remain resilient when facing adversity. Mission workers are often under great pressure, there is little time to switch off, and maintaining healthy boundaries can become challenging. The nature of working within mission can leave staff vulnerable to burnout, cumulative stress and vicarious trauma. Individuals in these roles can take on a great deal of accountability for the work they do, and often feel responsible if they can’t help or things go wrong, even if the systems are not in place to support them.

The good news is that there are many techniques that individuals can use to build their resilience. Building resilience is about learning to respect oneself. Therefore, I have created a resilience toolkit acronym using the word RESPECT (Dunkley, 2018). I recommend accumulating a good balance of resources that cover the following areas: Relaxation, Education, Social, Physical, Exercise, Creativity and Thinking.


Calming the system when we are traumatised or feel acute stress is essential, and the first step in stabilisation.

  • Breathing exercise – A simple breathing exercise I encourage individuals to try is to take a deep breath in, hold for a couple of seconds and make the ‘out breath’ longer than the ‘in breath’. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, avoids hyperventilation, and allows our mind and body to relax.
  • Mindfulness - I usually start with a simple exercise asking the individual to focus on their breathing; breathing in the word ‘calm’, and breathing out the word ‘tension’. When the individual becomes comfortable doing this I may add a colour to the in and out breath, for example breathing in ‘calm’ with a blue or green colour, and breathing out ‘tension’ with a red or black colour.
  • Anchors – Anchors are items that ground us. These can be photographs, a pebble from a beach, an item of jewellery, an item that symbolises our faith, a crystal etc. When we look at this anchor it manifests a positive mood and can assist us in staying grounded.
  • Prayer‘The more you focus on something… the more that becomes your reality, the more it becomes written into the neural connections of your brain,’ (Newberg & Waldman, 2009). This philosophy is similar to Hebbian’s theory that ‘neurons that fire together, wire together.’ (Hebb, 1949). Newberg found that when studying individuals, of various faiths, during prayer, their frontal lobes lit up (linked to positive mood), but the pariental lobes (linked to sense of self) went dark. Individuals described this ‘as a sense of oneness with the universe’.
  • Sleep – Sleep is often the first thing to deteriorate when we are stressed. Creating a routine at bedtime is helpful. This can include having a shower, writing a ‘to do’ list, turn off ‘blue light’ technology, placing drops of lavender or rose oil on the pillow or wrists.


I often refer to the statement ‘Facts Fight Fear’ as focusing on facts enables the prefrontal-cortex part of the brain to stay on line, thus reducing anxiety levels.

  • Psycho-education – Understanding how our physiology is impacted by acute stress helps to normalise symptoms, and reassure an individual who is suffering.
  • Triggers – List down all the personal triggers that cause you stress, by bringing this into your awareness you have more control and can protect yourself better from being impacted.
  • Dual awareness –  is a technique where an individual holds awareness of one or more experiences, simultaneously. Therefore focus on the distressing memory for a short period of time, and then a more pleasant memory, notice the different mood this generates.


Although attachment begins in infancy, the need for attachment relationships continues throughout our life.

  • Social connections – Research into resilience is undisputed on the value of contact with loved ones as a supportive factor, and involving social networks in the healing process can bring great comfort.
  • Socialising – Individuals can often feel ‘guilty’ for having fun and experiencing pleasure when they have been exposed to such hardship and traumatic stories. Give yourself permission to have fun again. Try not to isolate yourself; balance out alone time with socialising time.
  • Humour – Hearing difficult stories can be challenging and life may begin to feel heavy and serious. Humour is an important resource and can build a sense of comradeship and connectedness.
  • Peer support - Creating a safe space where colleagues can talk openly about daily challenges and fears is known to promote a sense of psychological safety and reduce stress levels, which in turn bolsters engagement, learning and effectiveness.
  • Pets/animals – Many people get a great deal of comfort from their pets, or from animals in general. There are also many centres that use animals to encourage healing. The most prevalent outcomes were a reduction in depression, PTSD symptoms, and anxiety. 


So much is written about trauma and stress being held in the body.

  • Shaking it off – When we feel tense it can help to literally ‘shake it off’, through shaking our hands vigorously, or waving our arms around each side of our body.
  • Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) –  comprises of tapping median points on our body, which is believed to release energy blockages from negative emotions.
  • Massage – When we are suffering acute stress or trauma, blood is pumped to the large muscles. Therefore any form of massage is helpful to encourage our muscles to relax.
  • Smell – Smell is the quickest way to get information to the brain from all our senses. Having a small bottle of scent at hand can be really grounding. Pick a smell that helps you, and try it out. I have lavender, rose, lemongrass, orange, and peppermint in my therapy room.
  • Diet –when we are experiencing acute stress the stomach shuts down, so it is helpful to routinely eat meals. When our digestive system shuts down we experience a dry mouth, as we don’t need to produce saliva to help digest our food. Therefore drinking lots of water is helpful. Alcohol, caffeine and nicotine will keep the stress response activated.
  • Nature –Research has shown that even brief interactions with nature can promote improved cognitive functioning and overall wellbeing.


The stress response releases hormones such as adrenaline, nor-adrenaline and cortisol. When we exercise we release feel good hormones, such as serotonin and endorphins.

  • Exercise – Being active not only helps us to keep fit, but research has shown that it also helps keep our minds alert.
  • Yoga, Thai Chi, Qi Gong and Martial Arts – These forms of exercise have been described as enhancing a spiritual or universal connection. The movements are performed in relationship with the breath, which encourages emotional regulation.
  • Building physical strength – Building physical strength by exercising with weights has been shown to increase confidence. However, due to its adrenalin pumping nature this type of exercise can become addictive; so if this technique is your preferred resource, make sure you balance it with resources from the other categories.


Creativity can soothe the traumatised parts of the brain, creating distraction as well as healing qualities.

  • Art – Painting or drawing is a great way to activate the creative part of the brain. This type of resource involves focus, and is therefore a good distraction that keeps us grounded in the present.
  • Music – Music has often been used as a healer, connecting deeply to our emotions. Notice the music you are drawn to, and why. If you are listening to adrenalin pumping music and you feel hyperalert and anxious, you may want to listen to calming music for a while.
  • Writing – It can be helpful to just allow words to form on paper, with no judgement or pressure to ‘get it right’, but just using writing as a means to ‘get it out there’.  
  • Safe place - Another exercise you can do to help relax your body and reassure yourself that you are safe is to do the ‘safe place’ exercise. Imagine a time when you were totally relaxed and happy. Become aware of all your senses as you recall this event: what did you see, feel, hear, taste, touch and smell? How did you feel at the time and where do you notice that feeling in your body? Using sensory information you can bring the memory alive, and recall it as a calming resource to use when you start to feel anxious.


The emotional brain, rather than the rational brain, dominates the mind when we are stressed. Therefore we can be consumed with thoughts of ‘not being good enough’, ‘not having done enough’, or feeling ‘we are to blame’.

  • Challenging negative thoughts –Consider what might you say to a friend who had experienced a similar event. Write down these supportive statements, and try saying them to yourself.
  • Affirmations/Mantras – Write a couple of affirmations (supportive statements about yourself) and keep them nearby, to refer to regularly.
  • Avoid stimuli – Material on social media or TV can be triggering. Monitor what you are watching and your arousal levels. It may be that you need to spend a period of time avoiding certain subjects.

If we can learn to ‘RESPECT’ ourselves more, listen to our bodies and prioritise our own wellbeing, we can role-model good self-care to support ourselves and those we care for.


Find out more

If you want to read more about resilience and self-care please feel free to visit the resources on my website here:


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Get a copy of Fiona’s Book

Fiona Dunkley is the author of Psychosocial Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers: A Roadmap to Trauma and Critical Incident Care. Although this book includes personal stories of humanitarian workers, it is useful for anyone whose work exposes them to traumatic material whether directly or indirectly. Order your copy here

Fiona Dunkley is a senior accredited BACP psychotherapist, supervisor and trainer and founded FDconsultants offering psychosocial support and trauma specialist services to humanitarian organisations. This article is based on an extract from Fiona’s new book Psychosocial Support for Humanitarian Aid Workers: A Roadmap of Trauma and Critical Incident Support. The book is published by Routledge (