Emotional Agility: Sustaining a Career in Law Enforcement
Marie Ridgeway, MSW, LICSW, RYT
Remember when you used to get excited for a shift and time at work flew by? When you looked forward to the activities and plans you had for your days off? These experiences can fade over time in a law enforcement career that often takes a toll on the mind, body and spirit. With chronic stress often comes emotional and physical rigidity: tight muscles, achy joints and chronic hypervigilance that can take the fun out of what used to be exciting work. The stress of the job can also diminish the connectedness and playfulness of relationships and home life.
Built for Survival
To survive in a dangerous world, our brains became excellent at making predictions. What we experience—what we might call consciousness—is essentially the best information the brain has for making predictions.
Our predictions are based on experience. As a law enforcement officer, you have undoubtedly had stressful, dangerous and demoralizing experiences—perhaps many times. As you normalize these experiences, it’s natural and expected that the brain will start to predict more bad things. This is the foundation of chronic hypervigilance: Even when you know you’re objectively safe, the brain anticipates something bad. There is an efficiency to this reaction, allowing your brain to “default” to stressful-response mode so you can react quicker.
Unfortunately, hypervigilance might make you a good cop at times, but it challenges your ability to be a connected partner, parent and friend.
Law enforcement officers have three major operating modes. This is an oversimplification, but these modes can generally be broken into:
- Patrolling the streets
- With the family
- In “the office”
The ability to cycle through these operating modes seamlessly is a skill no other profession I know of requires. On the streets, an officer must be able to take control of situations and be ready for anything. This mode is solution-focused—regardless of how you’re feeling. Hungry? Emotional? Tired? Frustrated? Worried about a sick family member? Need to use the restroom? The calls come first. It’s not safe to be distracted when everyone’s safety, including your own, is on the line. Most officers don’t realize the level of training the brain requires to tune out its own needs. A consequence of this nervous system override is emotional numbness.
Because safety always comes first in our brains, it’s common to get stuck in street mode to some extent.
On the other end of the spectrum is the operating mode we identify with the home life, which, conversely, requires emotional and cognitive flexibility. Family life is often chaotic, especially where children are involved. Your guard needs to be down for you to be emotionally available. A team approach to life and parenting works best, but, due to the realities of police work, you might often need to leave your spouse for extended periods. Despite these challenges, you must also be attuned to, and taking care of, your own needs.
Finally, there is the mode that comes with your agency—whatever that looks like for you. This is a social sphere that requires decorum and is quite distinct from the streets or home life. But too often those boundaries get blurred, and with bad consequences.
You may have been able to switch gears through these modes with much more ease in your early years. But with time, because safety always comes first in our brains, it’s common to get stuck in street mode to some extent. Even though your family and your personal relationships bring you quality of life and longevity, the brain will prioritize street mode because it presents most immediate safety needs.
How does an officer go about maintaining or returning to emotional agility over the course of a career? Here are some ideas.
Sleep: Continually prioritize sleep. There is little as important to your physical and mental health than sleep. This is when our brain repairs itself and it prepares for the next day. Rapid eye movement sleep is when our memories get stored away and it is particularly critical to our mental health. Police work can make it difficult to get enough sleep, especially with young children and competing needs. But you and your family need to make it a priority. Note: Alcohol will sedate you to help you fall asleep, but it ruins your sleep quality. Don’t drink before bed.
Move: Feelings need acknowledgment and physical movement is a great way to express yourself. Physical agility is emotional agility. Studies—specifically with law enforcement personnel—show that increased physical agility equates to increased emotional agility. We hold stress in our body as muscle tension, so it makes sense that when your physical body is in good shape and has better strength and agility, your mind and emotions will follow suit. The opposite of agility is rigidity, so the more suppleness and ease you can find in your movements, the better off you’ll be.
Stretch: Just as your physical body needs both stability and mobility, so does your nervous system. This means taking some of your workouts beyond strength training and cardio. Stretching or yoga can build agility, balance and stability. Simply stretching a muscle is teaching your brain that it’s safe to operate at the edges of its potential, while, at the same time, expanding the amount of space you have to work within. The balance earned from yoga positions works the sorts of little muscles that are often otherwise ignored. Shoulders, neck, hips and hamstrings are common problem areas for law enforcement, so stretches that focus on these muscles before and after a shift are helpful for both body and mind.
Breathe: Breath work is nervous system regulation. Breathing is usually involuntary, but when we take a moment to bring it our attention and exert some control over it, we affect how we feel. Breath is one of the first indicators of stress, as it becomes shallow and our blood pressure rises. Taking note of this, we can learn to use breath to bring calm.
The best way to start doing breath work is to practice when you’re calm. Tactical breathing is when you inhale to the count of 4, pause to the count of 4, exhale to the count of 4 and pause to the count of 4, and repeat. Even more effective for down-regulating your nervous system is the double inhale, full exhale: This technique replicates a sigh of relief for your nervous system and can be used to lower your heart rate, calm your nerves and even fall back to sleep faster when you wake up during the night. Take a nice big inhale, then another little sip of air at the top, then a full exhale. In just a couple of minutes, you’ll notice the benefit.
Is Your Container Full?
Imagine we all have a container to hold our emotions. Over the years that container can start to fill up. The cumulative effect of trauma exposure in law enforcement tends to be more problematic than individual acute events. Emotional rigidity, chronic hypervigilance, and ongoing physical pain and tension are often signs your container is filling dangerously up. The best way to manage the stress is to get ahead of it. Talk with your partners, your peer support team, your police therapist. Do what it takes to take care of yourself so that you can make the most of this one precious life!