Mindfulness versus panic

by Scott Medlin

It is your first day on the force. You are as green as a blade of grass. Like most rookies, you may want nothing more than to impress your training officer, the other officers in your department, and especially the higher-ups. This is what drives your anxiety in those first few months.

So, you enter a state of hypervigilance. You try your best to soak in every single piece of information that your fellow officers give you. You take mental notes on everything you possibly can.

What do you think is happening to your brain in these first few months on the force? Let me rephrase the question: How did you feel after getting home for those first few months?

Tired. Stressed out. Psyched about what you are doing, sure, but definitely tired.

Imagine if you were to maintain this kind of disposition for your entire life! We revere high-level executives, athletes, and other type-A personalities in this country especially, but what we do not often see is the havoc that such a “high RPM” drive wreaks on mental health.

Once you are on the force for long enough, your brain combines all those nitpicky data points you were so worried about into a database of user-friendly information. Then, you have a sense of what to do instead of constantly worrying about which page of your notes you have to flip to so you can fill out that DUI paperwork.

Sound like a load of bull? Here is another way to look at it. Let us say that you (a rookie) and your much more seasoned partner encounter a situation that neither of you have seen before. Your partner is still going to have a better handle on what to do, even though they have never studied for that exact scenario.

Bringing this back around to the topic of the mind–body connection, I am using this metaphor of the rookie officer to make sure that you do not flood yourself with stress and anxiety after reading this. You ought to find the most effective ways to utilize this information.

Instead of increasing your anxiety because of all these things, I want you to become — here is the kitschy buzzword of the day — mindful of them in a way that is conducive to your physical and mental health.

Think about your “health nut” friends. In my mind, there are two kinds these days. First, the kind that quietly and successfully manage their health using millennia-old methods: sleep, diet, and exercise. These people are doing it right.

Then you have the obsessives. Nothing is good enough. They track every pound daily, and they freak out when they do not meet their goals.

Instead of staying in that rookie mentality and just compounding the issues you are so worried about, put your mind at ease by practicing healthier habits.

That is the difference between mindfulness and anxiety. What exactly does that look like? Well, how did you lose your rookie anxiety? You just, like, went to work every day. You got over it.

It is okay to be a little stressed out and concerned. Our profession can do some severe damage if you do not care to help yourself — I am not going to lie. Nevertheless, instead of staying in that rookie mentality and just compounding the issues you are so worried about, put your mind at ease by practicing healthier habits.

So far, that means identifying sources of negative thought patterns. It means replacing these negative correlations with positive ones. It means eating healthier food, sitting less (when you can, of course), and optimizing your sleep schedule to the best of your ability.

Once you harness the power of myelination by forming a habit, then you will no longer need to burden yourself with the anxiety that comes with consciously recalling the stressful stuff. Instead of “I am gonna die if I do not do this, I am gonna die if I do not do this,” your brain will just be like, “Oh hey, it is Tuesday” as you are going about your day and making better decisions.

A frank suggestion, if I may

This next part is a little bit delicate, but necessary. I want to clear up some of the stigmas surrounding mind– body healing methodology.

So, first and foremost, I want you to know that I do not presume to know your past experiences, your preferences, or your unique health situation. I am not stereotyping you as some overweight, stressed out, jaded officer. Some of us are very fit. Some of us are conservative, others liberal, others unsubscribed.

That being said, it is not exactly a secret that police officers do not much go for complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) treatments. Examples: yoga, meditation, massage, tai chi, etc.

In fact, the social climate in many departments is such that the mere mention of many of these practices might just get you laughed out of the room.

Still, according to the International Journal of Complementary & Alternative Medicine, Hatha and forms of yoga and meditation techniques have been objectively proven to dramatically decrease physical and mental stress-related maladies in people with high-stress occupations.

Uh, perfect solution much?

Meditation

Yes, meditation. I know, I know — I was not so hot on it at first either. It seems like the kind of “hippy-dippy” nonsense that I would have a laugh with my fellow officers about. We are supposed to be too tough for meditation, right?

But I want to explain something about meditation that may help to disarm your criticism right off the bat. First and foremost, you already do it to a degree. There are at least meditative activities that we all enjoy in one form or another, especially after a long workday.

For example, sitting there and staring at a wall for five minutes while you have that after-work snack. Going fishing on the weekends. Going on a run and just spacing out mentally for twenty minutes. Standing there in the shower and focusing on the sound of the droplets bouncing off your noggin as you take a much-needed mental break.

So you see, “meditation” is not this made-up trend. It is not some magical skill that you learn. Your ability to meditate is built-in. Consciously making an effort to meditate regularly simply enhances your ability to enter that state.

Why do this? Because it confers a lot of essential benefits, both mentally and physically. Do not believe me? Check out this breakdown from Dr. Matthew Thorpe, who describes how meditation helps to:

  •  Relieve stress
  •  Fight depression
  •  Fight addiction
  •  Improve sleep

Uh, sound a tiny bit relevant to the issue of suicide risk among law enforcement, does it? It certainly should, because every single point on that list is correlated with suicide risk. What is more, meditation will sharpen your focus and allow you to better chase your aspirations.

Hopefully, it makes more sense now why Oprah Winfrey, Joe Rogan, LeBron James, and other highly accomplished people would take advantage of meditation.

“Alright, alright,” you might be thinking, “but how? I do not know how to meditate.” Oh, sure you do — we just need to focus on it, like I mentioned before.

There are different forms of meditation with different objectives. However, for beginners, I like to recommend what is called “breath awareness meditation” because it is very simple and just as effective as the other forms.

Sit on something comfortable or lie down. Close your eyes. Slow down your breathing and make each breath deeper.

That is the prep, now for the execution. There is only one step: just focus on your breathing. That is it. Do not think about anything else. If it helps, you can count your breaths.

Five minutes is an okay minimum threshold, and trust me, it will feel like forever the first couple times, but I like to shoot for closer to ten or fifteen. Still, we are not talking about waking up three hours early, so that is nice.

Of course, that hamster wheel of a mind is going to run off rather quickly — especially when you are a newbie at this. Do not be frustrated or discouraged. Simply return your focus to your breaths and resume.

After a few sessions, or maybe even one, you will notice that you have more patience and that you appreciate the little wins throughout your day more. You will spend less time fretting about unimportant crap and more time entertaining creative, substantive, and positive thought processes.

Meditation is awesome. Make fun of it if you want, but as someone who “drank the Kool-Aid,” I can tell you that it is absolutely life-altering in the best way.

This article is an excerpt from the book Mental Health Fight of the Heroes in Blue: How to Mentally Survive Working as a Police Officer.


Scott Medlin is a college graduate and former United States Marine who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He has worked as a police officer since 2007, and has helped a vast number of people through many different challenges. He is open and willing to share his mental health fights in an effort to help educate other officers so they can stay healthy and do their jobs right.

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