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Book excerpt: Body, Mind and Badge: Strategies for Navigating Trauma and Resilience in Law Enforcement

Law enforcement training should incorporate building the resiliency of recruits to help develop the psychological and tactical armor to adjust and adapt to fluid situations

The following is excerpted from “Body, Mind and Badge: Strategies for Navigating Trauma and Resilience in Law Enforcement” by Kathryn Hamel, Ph.D. The book focuses on two imperative components of law enforcement wellness: physical fitness and resiliency. Cultivating both will allow law enforcement personnel to cope with the stress and trauma of critical incidents and come out on the other side of the event a more resilient version of themselves. Click here for more information.

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Too often, officers turn to maladaptive habits to cope wth stress. Is there a better way? In “Body, Mind, and Badge,” Dr. Kathryn Hamel answers that question with a resounding “Yes!”

The Role of Law Enforcement Resiliency Training

Resiliency training – or developing “psychological armor” (Miller 1999) – helps law enforcement personnel build resiliency. Training includes stress inoculation training, hardiness training, pre-crisis psychoeducation, and cognitive-behavioral techniques to decrease the physiological response to stress such as mindfulness and progressive relaxation.

From the beginning, law enforcement training should incorporate building the resiliency of recruits, so that when they graduate and become officers, they have developed psychological and tactical armor that makes them able to adjust and adapt to fluid situations and maintain their mental toughness (Miller 2014). Resiliency training increases feelings of competence and mastery in decision making and tactics, and enhances law enforcement officers’ perception of control. Resiliency training builds confidence and feelings of self-efficacy; those, in turn, increase the development of resiliency and contribute to improved health and positive outcomes post-critical incident (Arnetz et al. 2013; Arnetz et al. 2009; Backman et al. 1997).

Police work is stressful and can cause several mental health issues. From the beginning, in pre-academy and at the academy, recruits are taught to be strong and stoic. Historically, the culture of law enforcement perceives asking for help as weakness. In fact, a study of 178 male police officers found that they avoided seeing a mental health professional because of the stigma attached in going to a “shrink” for help (Papazoglou and Andersen 2014). Thus, trauma often isolates people in the police culture because of this stigma. One way to address this barrier and create a cultural shift to promote resiliency in police officers is through training at the beginning of their career while in the academy.

According to Papazoglou, missing from police training programs is education on the impact of trauma for officers who are exposed to high levels of stress and trauma; the normalization of asking for help; and the purpose and benefits of peer support programs. To build trust and partnership with recruits, a police academy should utilize a student-centered training environment (Papazoglou and Andersen 2014). This environment can enhance a student’s adaptive coping skills, physical fitness, and effectiveness. Student-centered training could increase a sense of connection between recruit and police trainer that can model creating close relationships. These close relationships serve as an integral component for creating a sense of belonging, promoting resiliency, and reducing isolation in the aftermath of a critical incident (Papazoglou and Andersen 2014).

Research and practice-based recommendations include having police trainers come from law enforcement agencies and be a part of the police culture. This enhances their credibility and gets buy-in from the recruits from the beginning. Police trainers have a unique opportunity to influence the health and longevity of the recruits’ careers in law enforcement by establishing an acceptance of talking about police stress and trauma. It’s also recommended to include the following topics in the training curriculum: psychoeducation on the mental and physical impact of traumatic events; reducing stigma in the police culture by helping recruits understand emotions like fear, anxiety, and terror experienced during the course of a career in law enforcement are normal and not signs of weakness; and education on the value of peer support and other programs that can assist with mental health concerns (Papazoglou and Andersen 2014).

Some comprehensive programs to increase resiliency already have been designed. By learning to control perceptions, feelings, thoughts, and reactions through progressive rehearsal or stress inoculation training before a critical incident occurs, officers develop a core of resiliency that is both mental and operational (Miller 1999).

Stress inoculation training focuses on the person’s beliefs in their ability to cope with the stressors. The training involves three phases. The first phase is educational. The second phase is increasing a skill set or rehearsing what was just learned in a classroom setting. The third phase includes a practice phase where participants practice using the coping skills learned during phase two (Southwick et al. 2015). This type of training is used in law enforcement settings so that officers can learn tactics and condition themselves to respond to high-stress situations. In the aftermath of an officer-involved shooting, it is not uncommon to hear the officer say, “My training kicked in and I did what I was supposed to do.”

Simulation exercises also help stress inoculate officers in responding to high-stress incidents. Trainings that explain realistic outcomes and build positive beliefs promote an ability to distinguish personal and situational constraints, which gives officers an opportunity to learn and increase future mastery of, and confidence in, their tactics, decision making, and responses to critical incidents. Another program to build resiliency is hardiness training. Hardiness is a psychological concept that is made up of three interrelated components, which include commitment, control, and challenge. Commitment refers to the ability to turn a tragedy into something meaningful. The second component, control, regards feelings of control or believing that one has influence over life events. This way of thinking prevents long-term feelings of helplessness. Challenge, the third component, is the capacity to experience stressful and adverse events as challenges rather than threats, while also seeing the situation as an opportunity for growth. There is evidence that hardiness can be learned and increased through training that teaches people how to address feelings of perceived loss of control, cope with stress, and build on the ability to give and receive social support (Southwick et al. 2015).

Psychoeducation training is yet another resilience-building technique. Psychoeducation helps to front-load the process with first responders by creating awareness. With this awareness, police officers learn that the acute stress reactions or post-traumatic symptoms experienced in the aftermath of a tragedy are normal. Normalizing reactions through education and real-world examples help to validate that they are not alone, aren’t weak, and aren’t going crazy. I’ve experienced this firsthand. It’s very common during my “Impact of Trauma for Law Enforcement” class for students to approach during the breaks to discuss or disclose their reactions to a critical incident. It’s not uncommon to have a student say, “I wished I had known this 20 years ago when I started my career.”

For psychoeducation to be useful in resiliency training, there is imperative to choose the right instructors. Educators who are police personnel bring credibility and increase the likelihood of a cultural shift that gives permission to law enforcement personnel to be human in response to critical incidents and that “It’s ok to not be ok.” This empowers personnel to understand that what they are experiencing isn’t mental weakness and that talking about what they experienced can help reduce post-traumatic stress symptoms and increase post-traumatic growth (Papazoglou and Andersen 2014).

Overall, researchers found that psychoeducation led to improvement in health measures before, during, and after a critical incident. It also increases “positive emotion, vitality, reduced negative emotion and depressive symptoms, and improved self-regulation in response to stress” (Andersen et al. 2015, p. 5).

New types of resiliency training that are currently underutilized are cognitive-behavioral techniques that manage stress reactions. Training that is psychological in nature or perceived as “touchy-feely” will take time to integrate into law enforcement training and culture in general. Yet their use is growing.

Mindfulness training is one cognitive-behavioral technique of resiliency building that is new to police work. Lt. Richard Goerling with the U.S. Coast Guard is at the head of a movement that provides a different type of support for officers—one that perceives mindfulness as a protective factor for them personally and for the communities they serve. “We as a profession cannot be tactically sound, operationally savvy, guard people, and put our life on the line for people we may not ever meet if we can’t see or handle the tragedy and heartache that’s part of our every day job” (Goerling 2016). Empirical research and science show that mindfulness is helpful. Moreover, the scientific evidence encourages officers to find legitimacy in the concept, which means more openness to trying it (Goerling 2016).

In “Officer Safety Corner: The Role of Mindfulness Training in Policing a Democratic Society,” Lt. Goerling addresses the reality of the police culture and how it often takes a large-scale critical incident like a line of duty death or suicide for a department to create a wellness program that addresses the psychological impact of police work. Historically, these programs were reactive and left to the individual officer to manage. But, he argues, reactive models of wellness are not going to prevent complex and long-term police trauma. Rather, a preventative holistic model that includes mindfulness and addresses the mental, physical, and spiritual wellness of personnel will build resiliency (Goerling 2016). According to Richard Strozzi-Heckler, who has trained U.S. Army Special Forces in meditation and mindfulness, “Teaching meditation to police officers makes sense, culturally and scientifically. Meditation speaks to the warrior soul and teaches critical skills in self-awareness” (Goerling 2016, p. 2).

Police training programs spend a lot of money and energy on situational awareness, operations, and tactics. Mindfulness training has been shown to improve neuroplasticity of the brain which results in developing pathways to increased operational, mental, and psychological resiliency (Goerling 2016). Police organizations that proactively integrate mindfulness training into their culture from the leadership down are building the adaptive capacity of their personnel. First responders who develop a warrior mindset that includes mindfulness learn to respond to a critical incident, work through the process of adapting in the aftermath, and can become mentally stronger than where they started—all of which can lead to post-traumatic growth (Goerling 2016).

Other cognitive-behavioral techniques use relaxation practices like progressive muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and guided imagery. Mind-body connection to resiliency training can include yoga, dance therapy, and tai chi. Journaling is another self-directed, non-stigmatizing coping strategy that can help law enforcement personnel. Exploring irrational beliefs and reducing overgeneralizations that cause negative thought patterns also reduce depression and cynicism in law enforcement professionals. Humor is often used as a coping strategy; it creates bonds and helps with healing after a traumatic event. Lastly, police trainers can model trusting relationships and active listening to increase a recruit’s self-control and efficacy. New police officers who feel a sense of control may be better able to cope with organizational and operational stress while remaining resilient in the face of personal adversity or a traumatic event (Papazoglou and Andersen 2014).

The various trainings for resiliency – stress inoculation, hardiness, pre-crisis psychoeducation, and cognitive behavioral techniques – have a number of benefits to personnel including increased self-awareness and competence, reduction in stress responses during a crisis, and self-mastery. Through proactive resiliency training, organizations create a culture that increases the mental, physical, and spiritual health of personnel, which, in effect, increases resiliency in the law enforcement warriors who serve and protect the community.

NEXT: Building resilience in law enforcement: Purpose, control & leadership