Recent and ongoing events continue to challenge our typical notions of safety, predictability and control. The persistent nature of nationwide civil unrest, anti-law-enforcement political and media sentiment, and COVID-19 public health restrictions have tested our resilience (and sanity) more than ever. Although the range of emotions and other responses can vary among individuals, it is important to acknowledge how these events impact our general well-being. Several factors influence how well we adapt to and overcome adverse situations across our lifetime (aka our resiliency). It is important to learn ways to effectively navigate stressful experiences to reduce potentially negative consequences to your physical and emotional health.
In times of heightened stress, our brains tend to want to focus on the problem as a means to identify and neutralize the threat. Working in a law enforcement environment can further condition your brain to focus on things that are wrong or problematic. This is a helpful mechanism when there are physical safety issues, as we can often use this information to drive actions in service of our safety. This brain mechanism is less helpful when we perceive threats to our internal/emotional safety that cause us to feel helpless, powerless and/or out of control. When stress is not managed effectively, the brain can adopt a sort of “emotional tunnel vision” and stay locked on negative thinking, which can increase perceived stress and decrease effective problem solving. This can feel chaotic and negatively impact your health, relationships, job performance and overall well-being.
It is important to learn ways to effectively navigate stressful experiences.
The good news is that focus is a tool that we can control. You can actually train your brain to adopt a healthy perspective toward the varied thoughts and emotions that you experience when stressed. This can bolster resilience, which will allow you to recover more efficiently when stressed. Think of it as “mental muscle memory.” Just like you train physical tactics repeatedly to commit responses to muscle memory, you want to train your brain to respond effectively to emotional stress. As with any other behavior you train to commit to muscle memory, repetition and consistency are key to effective brain training.
Challenge yourself to choose two of the below techniques to train a few times daily over the next couple of weeks. Pay attention to how this helps you navigate stress:
- Emotion labeling creates distance, which acts as a buffer to discomfort. Take an observer stance to your emotions and describe what you are experiencing just like you would write a report (i.e., “just the facts”). Doing so acknowledges the emotion and allows you to experience it without being absorbed in it.
- Ask yourself, “Can/will I change it?” If yes, change it. If no, let it go and shift your focus to how you can manage your response to the challenging or stressful situation.
- Shift focus from problem to gratitude. While completing your daily tasks, think of two things you are grateful for. You don’t have to get all warm and fuzzy — keep it practical. For example, “I’m grateful for my health and for still being employed when others are being laid off.”
- Reframe your perspective. There are different ways to think about a situation. For example, “Why does stuff like this always happen to me?” versus “Although this situation sucks right now, there are also good things that have happened.” If your brain tends to jump to worst-case scenario, tell yourself, “That’s one option … what are other options?”
- Stay grounded using your senses. Stress can make us feel like we are on a hamster wheel — running and running just to never catch up. This can create a chaos loop where our thoughts and emotions feed each other. One way to disrupt this loop is by doing a grounding exercise. Try this: take a deep breath, now use your senses to identify something you see, hear and feel to help slow things down. Take a deep breath again. You should notice feeling a bit more relaxed.
- System check. After a stressful event or when you notice yourself feeling stressed, briefly pause and do an internal system check for any tension or discomfort. Do one to two minutes of deep abdominal breathing or combat breathing to help calm your nervous system. If you’re interested in additional breath and focus training, I encourage you to look for a first responder yoga class (yogaforfirstresponders.org) or tai chi.
Be patient as you practice these techniques. As with anything new, you may feel awkward at first. That is entirely normal because your brain is learning new ways to respond to stress. Over time and with consistent practice, you can commit these to mental muscle memory to enhance your personal resilience. Take care and be safe out there.