First responder health — thinking outside the box

by Sean Peterson

I sat down to write this in the wake of the NYPD’s ninth suicide this year. Blue H.E.L.P. statistics say there have been 198 suicides of active or retired law enforcement this year alone. Protesters literally begged police to commit suicide in Portland, Oregon. With what feels like everyone and everything against us, how do we rise above the darkness? Below, I have outlined some thoughts and ideas surrounding mental and physical health that we first responders can easily employ in such trying times.

“Combat” or “square” breathing

Here’s the simple process:

  • Intently breathe in with strong focus, slowly counting 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Hold that breath, counting 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Slowly and consistently exhale that breath, counting 1, 2, 3, 4
  • Repeat

Simply put, combat/square breathing is an effective way to calm the nervous system. It is a very basic introduction to the world of mindfulness, creating space between ourselves and our reactions. It brings our focus to the present moment by concentrating our attention on our breathing, allowing us to slow things down for a while so our bodies can catch up. Consider implementing this technique to offset the adrenaline spikes and stressors associated with hot calls, inter-department nonsense and the obstacles of everyday life. The beauty of this technique is it can be performed anywhere at any time. Try it the next time you’re rushing to that domestic or simply trying to ease the mind for a good night’s sleep.

Hitting the reset button with exercise

I briefly mentioned the cardiac repercussions of an adrenaline dump in an article for The short of it is: After a particularly stressful call, your body releases a flood of chemicals in response to that stimulation. If you don’t perform some sort of respectable exercise within 24 hours, that chemical dump can result in harmful deposits in your arteries. Investing just 20 minutes in your heart after a tough day can yield years of prosperity.

Exposing yourself to the world of exercise can substantially increase your quality of life. Whether you’re a newbie or haven’t worked out in years, there’s a suitable option for you in today’s fitness market. Golf, yoga, cycling, group classes or simply lifting weights in the garage can have a major impact on your health and wellness. You can improve your participation or adherence by choosing outlets that are fun, measureable and yes, even social. Below are just a few of the widely researched and documented benefits of exercise:

  • Improves mood and can relieve symptoms of depression and anxiety
  • Weight loss
  • Strengthen muscle and bone
  • Increase energy levels
  • Reduce risk of chronic disease
  • Promote a better sex life
  • Increase sleep quality
  • Relieve pain

I know you’re aware that exercise is healthy, but if we could make it a habit to reach for our gym shoes instead of the bottle, we would have a real shot at living longer and happier.


First responders have a cultural depreciation of sleep, and it’s costing us. Matthew Walker, a renowned sleep specialist and author of Why We Sleep, refers to sleep as a superpower and the single
most important thing we can do to improve health and longevity.
Lack of adequate sleep is directly correlated with the following:

  • Weight gain, insulin resistance and diabetes
  • Lowered immune function
  • Increased risk of Alzheimer’s
  • Learning and memory impairment
  • Increased risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Increased risk of cancer
  • Anxiety and depression

“There is no aspect of a human being’s wellness that isn’t eroded by a lack of sleep,” Walker says. So, what can we do to avoid all these ailments? The following are recommendations for a better night’s sleep:

  • Consistency. This means going to bed and waking up at the same time every day. This is done irrespective to weekdays, weekends and social obligations. Even if you’ve had a bad night’s sleep, still wake up at the same time and reset.
  • Prioritize. Make sleep a priority in your life. The old adage of “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is foolish and irresponsible. Your death may be coming a lot sooner than anticipated if you don’t tackle your sleep deficit. There are tons of apps for your phone and smart watches that will keep you accountable and allow you to track your sleep.
  • Darkness. We are inundated with light in this modern era, and it’s critically affecting our ability to fall asleep. LEDs, cellphones, laptops and TVs are a never-ending supply of light that are affecting our levels of a sleep hormone called melatonin. Melatonin helps with the timing of our sleep and could be the missing ingredient in your sleep protocol.
  • Temperature. Everyone thought I was crazy because I spent money on a mattress pad that flows cold water through it. It maintains a bed temperature of 68 degrees and it was one of the best investments I have made. Research suggests a room temperature of 68 degrees is optimal because it allows our body to properly lower its core temperature. So keep the room or bed cool and reap the benefits.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine. I know this is where I may lose most of you because these are the two major food groups for first responders. All I can ask is that you give it a shot or at least strategically consume these drugs. Alcohol fragments your sleep and interferes with the rapid eye movement (REM) stage. This is an important stage of restoration and natural sleep. The idea that
    “alcohol helps me sleep” is a fallacy and is causing more harm than good. Caffeine, on the other hand, is a stimulant that can interfere with your ability to relax. Consuming caffeine too late in the day can inhibit your ability to fall asleep and may exacerbate lingering anxiety issues. It takes about 5–7 hours for 50% of the caffeine you consumed to be properly broken down. Think about this the next time you reach for that late afternoon coffee.
  • Avoid tossing and turning. Don’t stay in bed for an extended period of time tossing and turning in frustration. Try getting up, going into another room and reading under a dim light. Avoid TV, phones and bright lights. Perhaps you could try out the square breathing I mentioned earlier. The reason for this is that our brain can start to associate the bed with wakefulness. So it’s best to dedicate the bed to sleep and sex, not for eating pizza and scrolling Facebook.

Hand hygiene and germs

This is the obvious but often half-assed aspect of the job. It may seem minor, but it can have a major impact on your longevity and quality of life. Some coworkers are really good, while others are just plain nasty. We work in a profession where we interact with all walks of life on different points of the health spectrum. We also share tons of equipment. Make it a point to wash your hands throughout the day, especially before eating, and make use of the endless supply of hand sanitizer. Taking five minutes at the start of your shift to wipe down the cruiser and equipment may save you days of being down and out. Think about how quick we are to glove up before going hands-on with someone, but we fail to exercise the same vigilance elsewhere.

PCP (no, not that kind)

Establish a meaningful relationship with a primary care physician if you don’t have one. I know we’re all tough guys and girls who “don’t need no friggin’ doctor,” but I think it’s important. We need a reputable and reliable person who knows us. Someone you trust and have a rapport with when you need their assistance with whatever ails you. For example, what if your sleep issues are the result of a disorder like sleep apnea? How would you know? How would you sort that out? You need someone to point you in the right direction. Think about it! We spend so much time tending to other people’s issues, it would be nice to have someone in our corner. After all, might as well cash in on those “benefits” we stick around for.

“Atta boys” and commendations

The following may sound a little “soft,” but hear me out. I remember a DI in the academy told us, “If you got in this profession for a pat on the back, you’re in the wrong profession.” Well, I disagree with that sentiment entirely. Now, I don’t think every good deed or successful call merits a hug, but an acknowledgment when an officer goes above and beyond would be great for morale. Especially in today’s climate, where officers are incapable of doing anything right according to the media, keyboard experts and social justice warriors.

I know departments generally have a procedure for nominations, but appointing a council of interested officers from each shift to nominate their own could be a great thing. This promotes recognition from the actual boots on the ground and carries weight. It doesn’t always have to be formal, either. Just taking a minute to pull a coworker aside and say “hey, nice job on that call” can make all the difference.

Assign vetted clinicians to departments

What if officers knew a clinician on a first-name basis? A clinician who popped into the station a couple of times per month just to say hello and talk with officers. Someone who said “hey, I’m here if you need me.” This could make it easier for officers to seek assistance directly and avoid any apprehensions of turning to a coworker for help. Secondly, this normalizes the concept of a clinician and puts a face to the name. I know I would be more apt to speak with someone if I shook their hand a few times and “shot the breeze” first.

This could be taken a step further and sessions could be incentivized by the department. Let’s face it, we are an incentive-driven bunch and if it gets first responders willingly talking to a clinician, that’s a huge win. A victory with enormously positive implications for officer long-term health. Lastly, I think having the command staff as vocal supporters and visible participants is a key element to the overall acceptance and belief in the program. I see tremendous value in a member of the brass saying “hey, I talk to someone regularly and it has helped me immensely.”

Recommend and utilize effective support teams

I am a member of the South Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council’s Critical Incident Stress Management team (SEMLEC CISM), and it’s my proudest law enforcement accomplishment to date. We spent thousands of hours over a career learning methods to handle everyone else’s issues, and this is truly something just for us. I have had the privilege of attending some incredible trainings and the honor of supporting fellow officers. Reach out to your departments or union representatives for information and utilize your local or regional support team. Confidentiality is sacred, and we’ve made leaps and bounds in getting officers the help they need. This is something I wholeheartedly believe in and urge you to trust the process.


I can’t stress this one enough. Traveling, particularly abroad, can restore your faith in humanity. It’s an escape from the stressors of the job and reaffirms that good people exist. Please, for the love of God, use your time off and stay the hell away from work. For those of you who reside in the town you work in, you’re never really free. Naturally, no police officer is ever really off the clock, but there’s a special added pressure to living where you police. Traveling allows us to ditch the uniform along with any concerns of running into someone you’ve had a negative interaction with.

Whether we like it or not, we work in a fishbowl. People know who you are and what you do. Just last week, I grabbed a coffee on my day off and an employee I had never seen before said “oh, no cruiser today?” That being said, people in Europe don’t know who I am! So I encourage you to experience other cultures and immerse yourself in something other than details and overtime. It doesn’t have to be an extravagant trip either, just make an effort to change the scenery. Please spare the poverty cries, because the same people making the “must be nice” comments are the ones buying new guns every month. Spend your money on experiences once in a while — the new Glock can wait.

Intermittent fasting

Let me start off by saying I’m not a registered dietitian and this is not meant to replace anything you’ve been directed to do by your healthcare provider. I’ve practiced fasting for years and it has been an invaluable tool for keeping me healthy.

Intermittent fasting is an eating pattern where you cycle between periods of eating and fasting. A common approach is to fast for 16 hours (this includes sleep) and select an eight-hour window to eat within. Black coffee and water are acceptable during your fasting period. When you do decide to eat, do not eat a pizza or cheeseburger and large fry because you’re starving. Responders can simply achieve this feat by skipping breakfast and waiting until lunch to eat something healthy. Yes, it may result in you having to change some of your habits, but a little discipline can go a long way.

There are many evidence-based health benefits associated with intermittent fasting:

  • Reduced insulin resistance
  • Increased hormone levels
  • Induces cellular repair
  • Weight loss
  • Improved risk factors for high blood pressure, cholesterol and inflammatory markers
  • Improved brain function

Regardless of whether you follow paleo, Atkins, ketogenic or the myriad other diets — they all find their success under the same principle of a negative energy balance. Negative energy balance is just a fancy way of saying more calories out than calories in. By eating fewer meals, you’re cumulatively consuming fewer calories. This particular eating pattern actually fits well with the hectic and unpredictable nature of our professions. It also breaks your unhealthy relationship with food and the unrealistic need to always be eating.

Admittedly, the environment we operate in is not a healthy one, and we’re certainly not the best at taking care of ourselves. We are master purveyors of advice and band-aids for everyone else’s problems. If we only spent a fraction of that time and energy on our health and wellness, we may start to enjoy some longevity. It’s time we start making our own quality of life a priority by checking on each other and getting out of the uniform once in a while. We are professionals in desperate need of lasting and effective strategies that allow us to stop mopping the floor and finally fix the broken pipe. God bless and stay safe.

Sean Peterson is a patrolman with the Taunton Police Department in Southeastern Massachusetts and a member of the regional Critical Incident Stress Management team. He is also the owner and performance director at Chaos Fitness, where he serves as a strength and conditioning specialist. Currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work, he hopes to become a licensed clinical social worker serving first responders.

He can be reached by email at

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