Unlike most other professions, law enforcement is an emotionally challenging and often physically dangerous career. The nature of policing places law enforcement officers in situations where trauma is unavoidable, chronic stress and post-traumatic stress are the norm, and suicide, depression, risky behavior, obesity, anxiety and addiction are dangerously potential health outcomes. In addition to these incident-based stressors, it is no secret that organizational stressors also negatively impact officer wellness. This constant exposure to stress exacts a heavy toll on police personnel and their families.
Historically we have responded to this stress and trauma through the construct of Critical Incident Stress Debriefing, Peer Support, and Employee Assistance Programs (EAPs). In essence, we have been acknowledging that our personnel experience stress and trauma, but we wait to intervene until post incident. Little consideration is given to neurobiology and other scientific disciplines that demonstrate how stress and trauma significantly impact the human behind the badge.
New Challenges, Opportunities
Every year it seems that more and more responsibility to solve society’s ills falls on the shoulders of our front-line law enforcement officers. We are dealing with homelessness and mental illness in ways we never have before. We continue to throw new training at law enforcement officers: We teach them how to administer a drug; how to identify mental illness on the spectrum of mental health conditions; we give them resources to help people who are homeless; we train them in complex crimes such as robbery, sex assault, domestic violence, fraud and homicide.
As we overload our law enforcement officers with training, expecting them to become impromptu mental health experts, victim and family advocates, paramedics and heroes, we are doing so—knowing full well—that they are encountering trauma and suffering. Science informs us that learning to pay attention to your mind and body is a critical resilience and performance skill, and mindfulness meditation is the path towards obtaining that goal. It is time to take care of the human behind the badge
Stressful events trigger hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, that increase heartbeat, blood circulation, and mobilization of fat and sugar, that race through the body, as the mind focuses attention and prepares muscles for action. This is often called the “flight-or-fight” response, and it happens in an instant. In the short term, stress may not have such a negative impact on performance because it can help focus our attention and expedite our response. However, in the long term, continuous exposure to stressful events, without training to mitigate that stress, leads to some form(s) of negative mind/body consequence, such as higher risk of cardiac death (Innerman, 2012), higher rates of depression (Wang et al., 2010), PTSD (Marmat et al., 2006) and alcohol use disorders (Rees & Smith, 2008), and let’s not forget forfeiting at least seven years off your lifespan (Violanti, 1996).
Recovering from a stress response requires additional time that is rarely available in our current operational paradigm. What we fail to teach police officers is that a constant state of hypervigilance is not sustainable, harms cognitive performance, and ultimately creates negative health consequences that will shorten or drastically reduce the quality of their lives—likely both. It should be no surprise that our health and psychological profiles are some of the worst of any profession.
It might be accurate to say that police officers learn early on in their careers to bury their emotions. In police work, calming down the body and regulating the activity of the mind, as well as the emotional being, is rarely part of the officer’s conscious consideration. We are trained to believe that being hypervigilant at all times is imperative to our safety, is a positive behavior, and crafting a suit of cultural armor is a way of being. This non-sustainable hypervigilance mindset demands extreme sensory awareness to environmental triggers and relies deeply on heuristics influenced by our stress response (Kahneman 2001).
One doesn’t have to be a scientist or a physician to understand how damaging this is to one’s wellbeing and sense of self. The result is a reduction in the ability to fully interpret our environment and process new information. Reacting versus responding to the stimuli in any situation, perceiving every encounter as a potential lethal interaction, inhibits our ability to make sound decisions under stress.
A Better Approach
The health profile of police officers and first responders clearly informs us that our traditional approach to wellness is not working. Science informs us that perhaps we should consider a nontraditional approach to increase wellbeing and foster resiliency.
Resiliency allows us to navigate through the stress and trauma of our work with either no negative effects, or with increased emotional stability, psychological strength, and personal growth. It really is simply the ability of a person to bounce back from a stressful event or a traumatic experience unscathed. Science today informs us that mindfulness training helps to achieve that goal.
“Mindfulness changes how the officer is aware of himself, how they manage and lead themselves,” says Lt. Richard Goerling, “and it opens up an awareness and compassion that radically changes how they show up, so it changes the energy of the encounter.”
Research continues to consistently show that mindfulness meditation addresses the need for first responders to build individual resilience, so officers can increase their capacity to skillfully navigate occupational stress and trauma. While mindfulness is relatively new to law enforcement, it is not new to the military and other elite performance populations, having been introduced to the U.S. Army Special Forces in the 1980s (Strozzi-Heckler, 1995) and the U.S. Marines in 2006 (Stanley, et al., 2008). Pacific University has found promising results associated with managing stress, strengthening attention, improving emotion regulation, reducing anger and aggression, and reducing alcohol use (Christopher et al, 2014).
Mindfulness is not about being all ‘zen’ and compromising tactical safety. In fact. it is quite the opposite: it actually improves our tactics. In Mindfulness-Based Resilience Training (MBRT), officers learn that emotions are not optional, emotions happen, and are normal.
And if mindfulness enhances emotional regulation, and stress is regulated, officers can assess their environment and external stimuli more effectively, resulting in more effective cognitive decisions along with enhanced performance and officer safety.
As Lt. Goerling says, “Mindfulness in policing is about transformation—transformation of the individual officer who is suffering deeply as a result of trauma, transformation of the organization and its leaders impacted by the slow toxicity of occupational and organizational stressors, and transformation of our capacity to build community.”
A mindful practice does not have to be hours of meditation each day. Taking just five minutes during your day can have a positive impact on your ability to be resilient. Sitting, standing, and walking are all modes of mindfulness meditation. A breathing focused meditation is very easy to do. It involves focusing our attention on the inhale and exhale of the breath. When the mind wanders, we simple return our focus to the breath. This kind of meditation develops the skill to interact with the constant stream of our thoughts, while also changing our relationship with our thoughts.
Science informs us that when our minds wander, our thoughts are mostly negative in nature approximately 47% of the time, (Killingsworth et al, 2010). Not only that, they are self-referential. This means that we have a constant flow of thoughts that tell us negative stories in which we are the main character.
With a mindfulness practice, rather than allowing our thoughts to control us, by returning our focus to the breath, we are interrupting that process and reducing the flow of negative thoughts. The neuroplasticity of the brain is dependent upon experience, and the practice of mindfulness alters the experience of your thoughts. The brain is continually remodeling itself. Neurons are continually firing every second, which means that if you only spend five minutes doing mindfulness meditation, you are creating new neural pathways and growing your resilience and sense of wellbeing.
How awesome would it be to journey through the hurricane of life and not let it blow you over? How awesome would it be to come to work every day capable of moving through stress and trauma, and ending your shift without tension, or a sense of suffering, but with a sense of wellbeing, and pride in the human behind the badge?
If you’d like to learn more about the Cordico Law Enforcement Wellness App, click here.
Be Fit – Be Well – Be More
Violanti, J., Campbell, D., (2017). Building Resilience: A Protective Leadership Strategy for Increasing Performance. May edition of The Police Chief Magazine.
Teper, R., Segal, Z.V., Inzlicht, M., Department of Psychology, University of Toronto (2013). Inside the Mindful Mind: How Mindfulness Enhances Emotional Regulation Through Improvements in Executive Control.
Lueke, A., Gibson, B., Central Michigan University (2016). Mindfulness Meditation Reduces Implicit Age and Race Bias – The Role of Automaticity of Responding
Violanti J., Fekedulegn D., Hartley TA, Andrew ME, Gu JK, Burchfield CM, 1998, Life expectancy in police officers: a comparison with the US general population
Tang, Y et al, (2007), Short term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. Proceedings of the national Academy of Science.
Strozzi-Heckler, R. (2007), In search of the warrior spirit: teaching awareness disciplines to the military. Blue Snake
Innerman FH. Cardiovascular disease and risk factors in law enforcement personnel: a comprehensive review. Cardiol Rev. 2012; 20;159-66
Christopher MS, Goerling RJ, Rogers B, Hunsinger M, Baron G, Bergman A, Zava D, (2015) A Pilot Study Evaluating the Effectiveness of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention on Cortisol Awakening Response and Health Outcomes among Law Enforcement Officers. Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Daily Life (New York: Hyperion, 1994), 4.
Killingsworth, M., Gilbert, D., A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind, (Science 2010)