Wellness for Law Enforcement

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Optimism. In Law Enforcement? by Jeff Shannon, LMFT

The other day as I was driving, I saw a twenty something guy skateboarding down the sidewalk. His clothes were dirty and torn, and he carried a piece of card board under one arm with writing on it. Within only a few seconds of seeing this young man, a rather harsh judgement popped into my mind, the specific words of which I’ll plead the 5th on. 

In this same few seconds, however, something quite amazing happened. Before I even completed the sentence in my mind, replete as it was with a colorful adjectives, I stopped myself. Not only did I stop myself, but I turned my attention to the young man’s lime green beanie cap. I said to myself, “I like that cap!” I said it again as he faded off beyond my side view mirror, “Cool cap.” 

What I realized in this very brief moment in time was that I’m becoming more “positive.” Having worked in law enforcement for ten years now, this is no small accomplishment. As just about every cop knows, the more years we have on, the more pessimistic we tend to become. Pessimism, along with its ugly cousin cynicism, follow naturally as we spend years interacting with people at their “Maddest, baddest and saddest,” as Kevin Gilmartin puts it (Gilmartin is the author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement). 

Optimism helps us bounce back from adversity of all kinds. Getting punched in the face is adversity. While I certainly hope no LEO has this experience, if it does happen, getting punched in the face does offer a moment of truth regarding ones’ ability to bounce right back and stay in the fight. Adversity can also take the form of events as routine as being stuck behind someone with no driving skills, working for a horrible boss, or being exposed to a critical incident. 

Dr. Dennis Charney at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, makes his living by studying how people respond to adversity. Specifically, he’s interested in those who are excellent at bouncing back. He interviewed Vietnam veterans who were held in captivity, tortured and kept in solitary confinement for many years. He came up with ten characteristics of those who didn’t suffer from PTSD or depression after their imprisonment. Guess what the number one characteristic of resilient individuals was. Yeah, it was optimism. 

Your daily experience reveals that some people seem to be naturally more optimistic than others. By the way, we’re not talking about those who are obnoxiously and unrealistically happy about everything. We’re talking about those who understand the gravity of the adversity before them and yet see the cup as half full. Regardless of how naturally optimistic you are, the fact is we can work toward being more optimistic (and therefore more resilient) if we so choose. 

Having made baby steps myself toward being more optimistic, I can report the following benefits, 

  • I’m less pissed off. 
  • I feel better in my skin.
  • People like being around me more (I think). 
  • I’m a better role model for my kids. 
  • I have less toxic stress hormones coursing through my veins.
  • My overall life satisfaction is better. 

Okay, assuming I’ve sold you on working toward being more optimistic, how do you “do” it? Step One is the most difficult. It involves bringing conscious awareness to our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. The great thing is, we have lots and lots of opportunities to practice this stuff. 

Angry, impatient, pessimistic thoughts are all opportunities! If you bring conscious awareness to them - in other words, you catch yourself in the act - you can choose to shine the light of conscious awareness on to something more positive (like the guys’ cool beanie). Doing it just one time will show you it’s possible. 

Suddenly realizing that you’re feeling angry, tense, or irritable also presents the opportunity to ask yourself why you’re feeling that way. Then, you can add some positive (and probably more realistic) thoughts into the mix of your mind. Feelings don’t come out of the blue, they are the logical result of thoughts (e.g., if you think “I’m late!” you will begin feeling anxious and your body will tense up). You can also take a few belly breaths to relax. 

Finally, if you don’t catch yourself in the act of thinking or feeling, your body may tip you off. If you’re sitting at a computer banging out a report and you suddenly realize you have a knot in your neck, again opportunity time. 
Although I’ve used a lot of words to describe this process, keep in mind it can happen lightning fast (like the example I used at the beginning). 

If you’re disciplined enough to exercise regularly as most LEO’s are, then your disciplined enough to work on your optimism. It’s one of the best investments in your overall wellness you can make. 

 Jeff Shannon is a Police Officer, law enforcement instructor, and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in northern California. 

jeffshannonmft@gmail.com 

Friday, November 22, 2013

Wellness Tip: Add Some Gratitude to Your Cynic Soup



Pain is slight if opinion has added nothing to it; ... in thinking it slight, you will make it slight. Everything depends on opinion; ambition, luxury, greed, hark back to opinion. It is according to opinion that we suffer. ... So let us also win the way to victory in all our struggles, - for the reward is ... virtue, steadfastness of soul, and a peace that is won for all time.
—Seneca, Epistles, lxxviii. 13-16 


There is no part of our mind/body so qualified to make us sick or well, as our thoughts. Depression, frustration and joy are all emotions and, like every other emotion, they are derived from whatever we were thinking about just before the feeling. In an important sense, we are our thoughts. 

The typical cop has a lot of thoughts about how junky the equipment is, how worthless the administration is, how lax the criminal justice system is, and so on. When we put all these thoughts into a big wooden soup bowl and eat from it every day, we can end up pretty cynical and burnt out. Over a period of decades, Cynic Soup can make you quite ill. 

If we don’t pay attention to the content of our thoughts, we’ll become victimized by them. The good news here, is that we have complete control over our thoughts.  It’s not easy to control all of our thoughts, all of the time, but we can - like putting some fresh spice into the soup -  add a few thoughts.

May I recommend at this point, adding thoughts of gratitude. Several months ago a respected academic journal (Journal of Clinical Psychology) published an article by two big brains who reviewed the research on gratitude. They found that people who made time to really consider the things they were grateful for lowered their blood pressure, improved their immune system and had more energy than the rest of us ingrates. 

The grateful bunch also had less anxiety, depression and substance abuse. So, it seems gratefulness was tailor made for cops, who are at increased risk for all the above maladies. 

There are lots of ways to bring gratitude into our lives. You can think about the things you are grateful for that day, while sipping your morning cup of Joe. You could remove the crap rubber banded to the visor of your patrol car, and replace it with a piece of paper that has one thing your grateful for that day on it. 

I’ve been keeping a gratitude journal for about a month now, and that’s amazing. Right before going to bed, I pull up my lap top and write a few things I felt grateful for that day. 

Don’t worry that keeping a gratitude journal will turn you into a soft, Birkenstock wearing hippie. We still have lots of things to be pissed off and cynical about. In fact, you should only consider putting some gratitude in your life if you want to be a little less pissed off and cynical. 

[[looking out my bedroom window feeling grateful for the lovely fall sunset]] 


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Preying On Our Own: Damaging Gossip in Law Enforcement


“What are they saying?” This is a question Officers should never have to ask after a critical incident, but it is asked, almost every time. What are my fellow officers saying about me? Law Enforcement Officers, being hardwired perfectionists, are very concerned about how we are perceived by our peers. We know that gossip can develop into a “jacket.” Weak, stupid, butt kisser, bureaucrat...you get the picture. We often then believe (most of the time erroneously) that our entire career has been tainted by these easily earned and hard to get out of jackets. I’ve heard parolees lament, “It’s easy to get in the system. It’s ain’t easy to get out.” Same goes for the unfair labels we put on each other. 

Like it or not, we lead high profile lives. We have to put ourselves way out there in this profession. Soft spoken Officers have to learn how to bellow, “Get on the ground!” It may not feel natural but we do it because we have to. Ours is a difficult profession by anyone’s standards, and when we make our inevitable mistakes, it’s often right out there in the open. If you can’t stand the thought of looking foolish in public don’t even consider police work. 

The problem isn’t making mistakes, but rather what we fellow LEO’s do when we see or hear about the mistakes of our brothers and sisters in blue. And what would that be? We seek out all the gory details. Like chum thrown in shark infested waters, we swarm. A frenzy of gossip, exaggeration and trash talking erupts within the department. We love it. This is what we can and must change, one Officer at a time. 

Damaging gossip differs from the good natured, sometimes relentless ribbing we give each other as a sign of affection and acceptance. Damaging gossip on the other hand, serves as a destructive stress-reliever for pent up cops.  

We already have one of the most stressful jobs on the planet. We already have equipment that doesn’t work, felons trying to kill us, district attorneys that don’t charge our cases, reports that are kicked back, and defense attorneys trying to twist us up in court. The fact that one of our greatest sources of stress is knowing that our colleagues are disparaging us behind our back is completely unnecessary. 

One of the highest held principles in law enforcement is that of taking personal responsibility for our actions. I would like to invite every one of us to include in that inventory of personal accountability, the degree to which we tear down or build up our family members. 

We need to vent, no doubt about that. We need a few trusted co-workers who we can turn to and, in a confidential setting, blast our beat partner or supervisor to. That’s peer support in it’s rawest form and it’s part of what allows us to carry on in this work. But when we’re not thoughtful about the who, when and where of our tirades or gossip, we  we create additional stress for our fellow Officers. We prey on our own. 

Cops need two things when we screw up: we need to learn, and we need support. With regard to learning, we are often our harshest critics. Any tongue lashing we get from the Sergeant pales compared to our own harsh self-talk. 

We need someone in the group to stand up for us when we’re not there to defend our reputation. We need someone to say, “I did that same thing a few years ago and let me tell you about it,” or “I wonder what we can do to help Larry move on from this.” 

Speaking up for those who have made mistakes not only protects their reputation, it benefits you, as it is an act of kindness and compassion. It benefits you by giving you the feeling that you helped a fellow Officer in need. That “good feeling” we get when we stick up for others has real health benefits. For example, Dr. Stephen Post from Stony Brook University School of Medicine reviewed over 50 research studies on the health benefits of altruism and concluded, 

In total, the research on the benefits of giving is extremely powerful, to the point that suggests healthcare professionals should consider recommending such activities to patients.... If the benefits of volunteering or altruism could be put into a pill, it would be a bestseller overnight

A career in policing puts us face to face with a smorgasbord of stressors that are completely outside of our control, damaging gossip is one that we’re putting on ourselves. Let’s be mindful of what we’re adding to the culture of our department. Next time you’re in the locker room changing out to go home, ask yourself, “Who did I support today?” If we all adopted such an attitude we’d never have to answer our friend’s question, “What are they saying?” 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Police PTSD, Stress & Suicide Documentary

Looks like the group at Badge of Life (badgeoflife.com) is trying to get financial support for a documentary on the above topics. I think the completion of such a film would be a great way to educate administrators, er, I mean law enforcement professionals about the importance of proactive mental health. 

Here's the trailer,


Code 9 Officer Needs Assistance

Monday, January 16, 2012

The Laugh Challenge

I teach a police stress class. It's really easy to talk about all the ways police work destroys our health and happiness. That's the easy part. The more challenging aspect of the class is getting cops to practice the things that will make us healthier bipeds. More comfortable in our skin. Better partners, parents and friends. Case in point: laughter.


Laughter acts just like medicine. It changes the way our body works at the physiologic level. Think about how you feel after a really good laugh. You feel great, right? Your muscles are more relaxed, you've stimulated blood flow and just plain feel better.


It's no accident that cops laugh so much. We collect a lot of tension at work and naturally, albeit unconsciously look for things to laugh at. Co-workers, their recounting of a street contact or call they responded to, are usually a good source of laughter. "So, I roll up get out of my car and this guy runs up to me and [insert bizarre, goofy or stupid action here]." We also laugh AT our co-workers too, don't we? The point is, we intuitively know laughing is good for us so we do it a lot.


But "fake" laughter gives us the exact same benefits as real laughter. Enter the Laugh Challenge. 


THE LAUGH CHALLENGE: 
You're sitting at the dinner table with your family (or friends). Pick a random time when everyone's there, and start laughing. Don't wait for something funny, create something funny by fake laughing. And, yeah, it'll feel really fake and silly and a voice in your head will bellow, "This is STUPID, stop it!" If you head that voice you will fail the challenge. Keep on with the fake laughter. A lot of people can't get past their "comfort zone" here, but not you. You're going to push on and keep laughing. 


If you've made it this far you'll see the good stuff. Okay, so you're laughing like a complete moron and your family is looking at you like you've finally fallen off the deep end. Right about here your real laugh will probably kick in. MAJOR PRINCIPLE OF LAUGH THERAPY: fake laughing produces real laughing. Your kids, wife, friends or whoever is around you will start laughing for real. Now, you're laughing for real, they're laughing for real and tears will start coming down your face. 


When I've done this in the past, I find it becomes one of those truly crazy laugh episodes. The ones you where you can't STOP laughing. After the dust settles and people are wiping the tears from their eyes you can tell them about the challenge. 


You've given yourself and everyone around you the gift of a good belly laugh. Let me know how it works out. 


For more on this see,


http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5165226

Wednesday, January 4, 2012