Trauma, acute stress and potentially crippling situations are part of an officer’s everyday experiences. How an officer learns to respond to these daily traumas can determine positive outcomes for the officer, the people they are engaged with and for the community.
Scientific evidence reveals that the daily practice of mindfulness and meditation can not only strengthen resiliency but can enable constructive responses that are productive of wellness and safety. Mindfulness and meditation are shown to reduce anxieties and stress while enabling calm, rational thought and decision-making. This enables an officer to consciously control their response to threats, frustration and dangers rather than the primitive aspects of their brain using uncontrolled emotion to hijack their rational thinking processes.
While experiencing trauma, acute stress or danger, the more primitive emotional part of our brain can override the more rational, contemplative aspects of the brain. This can cause an instinctive flight or fight reaction. When this happens, the officer becomes severely limited in their ability to think clearly, make rational decisions, exercise good judgment and control their responses. This can lead to overreactions, such as excessive uses of force, unprofessional behavior, unrestrained anger, aggression and poor decisions that can have significant repercussions for the officer, the agency and the community.
With the daily practice of mindfulness and meditation, an officer can learn to control their reactions in stressful situations and determine a rational, reasonable response. What are mindfulness and meditation?
Mindfulness is the practice of being fully invested in the present moment, completely aware of what you’re sensing, feeling and thinking
in the moment at hand, without interpretation or judgment. Practicing mindfulness involves breathing methods, guided imagery and other practices to relax the body and mind and help reduce stress.
Mindfulness involves the conscious intention to keep thoughts focused on the present, not on what has happened in the past and what could happen in the future — but on what is happening right now and thinking through ways to reasonably respond. It is the practice of striving to make the most of the present moment rather than merely getting through it. When we’re not living mindfully in the present moment, then we’re robbing ourselves of the opportunity to make the present moment both meaningful and productive of wellness.
Meditation is concentrated thought upon something that evokes a positive emotion while being focused on slow, deep breathing. It is intended to encourage a heightened state of awareness and focused attention in the present. Meditation is also a consciousness-changing technique that has been shown to have a wide number of benefits on psychological well-being and has been practiced in a variety of cultures for thousands of years.
I have been meditating for over 35 years, and from my experiences, the best gift one could ever give themselves is to develop the daily practice of meditation. Several scientific studies show that only 5–10 minutes of meditation in the morning has positive effects that last all day long. Meditation enables one to be calmer, centered, more able to make good decisions and better able to recover from stressful situations.
Case study of mindfulness meditation for law enforcement
Mindfulness and meditation are ways of centering your thoughts on your breathing. As the body calms down as you focus on slow, deep breathing, it reduces your cortisol levels which reduces stress. A calm mind calms the body, and a calm body calms the mind.
The San Diego Police Department Wellness Unit has created a Mindfulness for Law Enforcement program where officers do mindfulness meditation for 10 minutes at line-up prior to breaking and going out into the field. This helps to mitigate the stress that the officers may have brought from home as well as stress from being at work so that they go out into the community as better, more resilient police officers.
Mindfulness-based resiliency has helped me so much, as well as many other officers, with being present with everything that is going on and, therefore, more capable of responding in positive, effective ways. Mindfulness is being present in the moment, policing and living in the now while not worrying about what’s going to happen, what just happened or thinking about what can happen, but being present and ready to handle anything that comes your way.
How to meditate
Meditation uses a form of tactical breathing, which is endorsed by Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman (ret.), author of The Warrior Mindset. You begin by sitting in a comfortable position, then focus on breathing slowly and deeply. Breathe in slowly through your nose, hold your breath, then very slowly exhale through your lips. Repeat this slow breathing process several times while envisioning the inhaled and exhaled air coming in and out of your heart.
Then, focus on something that evokes a very powerful emotion, such as love, gratitude or peace, while continuing to breathe in this manner. Think of someone you love, someone or something you’re very grateful for or maybe a peaceful place. Continue this for 5 to 10 minutes.
Afterward, you are likely to feel much calmer and relaxed, and the benefits continue throughout the day. If during the day you either experience a stressful situation or are about to enter a stressful situation, practice the mindfulness breathing technique, and your mind and body will respond.
Headspace.com is an app that can help a beginner to explore how to meditate. There are also other apps and several YouTube videos on mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness and meditation are extremely helpful ways to self-regulate. With daily practice, you can learn to be centered, calm and how to respond to traumas and stress in positive and effective ways. You’ll also likely learn to recover more quickly from stress and maintain a focused presence during difficult challenges.