The Elephant in the Room: Mental Resilience in Cybersecurity

October 21, 2021 | Justin Vaughan Brown

A Conversation with Amber Coster

With a shortage of 3.5 million cybersecurity professionals worldwide, ever-increasing attack vectors, an exponential increase in attack volume, and the multitude of new vulnerabilities the new work-from-anywhere normal has created, there has never been a more challenging time for SecOps professionals.

Many industry professionals have not returned to the office yet, and those who have returned may only be there a few days each week. In-person team collaboration and engagement has been limited for the last 18 months. Taken in combination, the pressure and demands on SecOps teams is monumental. How can you stay resilient in the face of all these dynamics?

We turned to an expert in this topic, Amber Coster, founder of workplace wellness consultancy Balpro, for some guidance on a rarely discussed but highly relevant topic. Here is our Q&A:

How has the topic of mental health evolved over the past 3-5 years?

For a long time, the words “mental health” would trigger black and white images of a person crying the corner of a room, helpless, curled up in a ball. We heard “mental health” and saw illness, sorrow, or even danger. But we’re starting to appreciate that this picture is not an accurate representation of mental health. Just like physical health, we all have it, and how we’re feeling on any day falls on a spectrum. Ever so slowly we’re starting to appreciate that we can struggle with our mental health, we can be mentally unwell — and we can also achieve extraordinary things. We can be world class athletes, wonderful parents, great friends, and model employees.

More recently, the conversation around prevention has started to gain real traction. We’re exploring ways to build our mental fitness and starting to appreciate that there are things we can do today to help protect our mental strength.

We shouldn’t get too smug, though. We’ve made progress but stigma has not been eradicated. Judgement exists and healthcare is underfunded and inaccessible for many; there’s huge progress still to be made.

Why are people more willing and open to talking about this topic (e.g. losing stigma, albeit slowly)?

Sharing inspires sharing. People are relating to other people’s stories and being inspired to share their own. Each conversation gives those who are struggling hope and chips away at the stigma and shame.

When you’re depressed it can be hard to see a future that holds any joy, possibility, or success. Learning that Michael Phelps experienced anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts before going on to win 28 medals during his Olympics career — well, that can change things for a person. It can give a flicker of optimism, a light at the end of the tunnel. People are then inspired to pay it forward, giving hope to others.

Mental illness can feel exceptionally cruel, isolating, and demeaning. For many, it takes courage to share stories, to be vulnerable. It’s normal to struggle with your mental health but it doesn’t always feel that way, especially when you’re in it. The more we share, the more the topic is normalized, and the more people are given hope.

What impact has the pandemic had on people’s mental resilience?

One of the best quotes of the pandemic is that we were all “in the same storm, but in different boats.” We’ve experienced collective trauma, but our experiences are far from the same, and therefore our resilience varies greatly. It is so important not to lose sight of this.

A lot of people are tired, they’re experiencing heightened health anxiety, grief, and the future still feels a little less secure than it did pre-covid. Others are excited to get back into the world, “make up for lost time,” and feel energized. Almost everyone has reassessed their values to some extent. It’s so important to meet people where they’re at and recognize that this in itself may change day by day.

What are some of the tell-tale signs that a person needs to act?

Everyone’s baseline of “mentally healthy” is different and so are the signals that our bodies and minds will send us. Getting to know yourself is key. One person may eat less, one may eat more; one person will bury themselves in work, others will stare at their screens unable to process simple tasks; one will want to hibernate and the other will be the life and soul of the party, desperate for the night not to end.

Start by asking yourself how you’re doing and listen to the answer. Are you finding you have less interest in things that used to bring joy? How’s your sleep? Are you restless, apathetic? And how long have you been feeling like this?

Often we’ll have a nagging feeling that something is not quite right, and often, we’ll try to ignore it. Don’t! Learning to listen to our bodies and minds — and critically, taking action — gives us the best chance of preventing reaching a point of crisis.

Can you suggest three quick impact practices that readers of the blog could action straight away?

Get outside — Even if just for a 15-minute walk. Get the blood pumping, breathe some fresh air, connect with nature, and give creativity a chance to return.

Get a win a day —It can feel paralyzing to have so many conflicting priorities, spinning plates, pinging alerts; sometimes "important/urgent" just doesn't cut it. Focus on a win a day. Just one little win. That way, when you get into bed that night you concentrate on that one thing you got right rather than the 100 things that are still “to do.”

Connect with others —Being part of a safe and supportive community is critical for our mental well-being. And remember, sharing inspires sharing.

What should someone do if they’re struggling with their mental health?

Never hesitate to contact your local emergency services department if you feel you or a loved one is at risk to themselves or others — that’s exactly what they’re there for.

Crisis text line is a wonderful organization that supports people who are struggling. You can text SHOUT to 85258 (UK) or HOME to 741741 (USA) to be connected to a crisis volunteer for free, 24/7.

For those outside of the US/UK, your doctor is a great place to start. If this doesn’t work for you, search “mental health support” to locate a charitable organization in your country — there are so many wonderful organizations in this area. Whatever you do, don’t do it alone. Speak up, help is closer than it feels. If you’re based in the UK, here’s some additional advice.

Learn more from Amber as she co-hosts a SANS webinar, “Building Mental Resilience as a SecOps Professional,” with Deep Instinct on October 28th at 10:30 AM EDT. Register here to attend.