Mental toughness for law enforcement

By Dr. Laurence Miller

Q: I took a “stress management” course at a local law enforcement academy and most of what they focused on had to do with deep breathing, relaxation, and other calm-down techniques. But if I’m on the job, I can’t be zoning out while I’m searching a building, questioning a suspect, pulling over a suspicious vehicle, making an arrest, or looking down a gun barrel. Aren’t there methods for keeping yourself sharp and alert while de-stressing yourself at the same time? Isn’t a little stress actually good for you? Can you mentally toughen up so that stress won’t have such a impact on your performance?  That is, can you learn to use stress to your advantage?

A: Yes, you can and I’m going to tell you how to do it in this article and invite you to learn more about it in my new book, METTLE: Mental Toughness Training for Law Enforcement (Looseleaf Law Publications, Inc.).  This program incorporates proven strategies for building psychological resilience and peak performance adapted from the fields of military psychology, sports psychology, cognitive psychology, neuropsychology, and behavioral medicine that is directly applicable to the special needs of law enforcement personnel.

Stress and the stress response
You’re correct that a certain amount of optimum stimulation is necessary for peak performance. The evidence suggests that stressful situations that are challenging but not overwhelming may actually contribute to better physical and psychological health. In fact, University of Nebraska psychologist Richard A. Dienstbier uses the term toughening to describe what happens when challenging situations require active coping and problem solving.  Animals and humans who are stressed, but learn to adaptively work their way out of the problem, show a distinct psychobiological pattern.

For inexperienced or untrained subjects, overwhelming stress taxes the nervous system to the breaking point and can lead to a variety of maladaptive effects, including high blood pressure, sleep disorders, gastrointestinal problems, chronic anxiety, or depression. However, individuals who have learned to deal effectively with such emergencies – that is, “toughened up” by developed good coping and mastery skills – show a more efficient and adaptive nervous system response that is appropriate to the specific episode of stress and returns promptly to normal baseline when the crisis is over.

As an individual learns to cope with challenges in an adaptive way, a positive spiral develops: more effective coping leads to a smoother psychobiological stress response; the more this happens, the more the person learns to have faith in his or her own coping abilities, and so the stress response becomes even more adaptive and less disruptive. This is what the toughening response is all about.  Mentally tough people – in the sense of resilience, not resistance – are able to cope adaptively with adverse situations and are therefore less likely to succumb to stress-related illnesses. 

Think of it as developing your own personal psychological body armor but, unlike a vest that you strap on and off, this kind of mental armoring grows from within, based on your training and experience. You can’t lose this psychological body armor because it’s become a part of who you are.

Toughening Up: The METTLE Model
How do you armor up?  Unfortunately, many so-called “stress-management” programs rely mainly on relaxation or other arousal-reduction techniques – as if dealing with stress amounted to floating on a cloud.  But these mellowing-out techniques and therapies may actually work against developing true adaptive toughness. By portraying stress as something to be reduced or avoided at all costs, these approaches inhibit the learning of adaptive coping skills to deal with the challenges of police work and life in general. That’s why the METTLE program incorporates the following features:

Arousal control
Yes, it’s good to be able to relax when you need to decompress from a particularly harrowing law enforcement encounter.  But during the incident itself is no time to let down your guard.  On the contrary, that may be just the circumstance when it’s vital to know how to increase your arousal level and control it efficiently so that you maintain what scientists call the optimal arousal level, or OAL, which is associated with peak performance in combat, athletics, and the performing arts.  The key is to develop the ability to flexibly modulate your psychophysiological arousal level so that it’s appropriate to the situation at hand.  

Paying attention 
In psychological terminology, attention is what allows you to focus on a critical task or situation so that sensory input is processed in a meaningful pattern.  Concentration is the ability to consciously and purposefully direct and maintain your attention to a particular object or activity, while screening out distractions.  At the same time, it’s important to be able to switch attention to another subject when necessary, and even maintain different types, levels, and targets of attention and concentration as needed at any given time, such focusing on a suspect search while broadly scanning the environment for possible danger.  By training your attention, you expand, refine, and strengthen your “mental radar” so that you’re always maximally attuned to what’s going on around you.

Using imagery 
The ability to mentally project oneself into a different mindset or situation is a time-honored psychological technique for enhancing skill in sports and the performing arts and only quite recently has this begun to be specifically applied to law enforcement training.  Multisensory imagery exercises can be used to simulate training scenarios, enhance real-world skills, analyze and correct errors, mentally prepare for action, and enhance overall confidence.  Imagery can be combined with real-life training to enhance performance in the field.

Thought and language
Human beings are unique among this planet’s creatures because we can use language to communicate our ideas and emotions to others and, just as importantly, to articulate our thoughts and feelings to ourselves.  Thinking and language are mutually reinforcing: our words express what we want to convey and, in the telling, often reinforce the very thoughts and feelings that gave rise to them.  Thus, we can think and talk ourselves into either realistic confidence or delusional despair.  You can use your advanced human brain to enhance your own mental toughness by learning to employ the cognitive control strategies of thought stopping, cognitive restructuring, positive affirmations, and task-relevant self-instruction. 

Psychological survival training 
Hopefully, it won’t happen often, but you may be abruptly faced with a life-or-death emergency that will call upon all of your mental and physical reserves to survive and overcome.  Behavioral science and law enforcement experts agree that one of the key elements of surviving a deadly force encounter is your ability to keep your thoughts and emotions under control in the flood of confusion and panic that threaten to overwhelm you.  Here’s where the combined mental toughness skills you’ve mastered come into play to save your damn neck.  Psychological survival training prepares you to anticipate danger, seize the initiative, react quickly and purposefully, adapt quickly and efficiently, and respond with peak physical and mental power to survive and overcome a life-threatening critical incident.  

Post-incident follow-up 
A truly comprehensive mental toughness training program does not neglect what happens to an officer following a critical incident.  Sometimes it takes a few days or weeks for the “mental novocaine” to wear off and the true psychological impact of the life-and-death crisis is felt.  Other times, the emotional disruption is experienced right away but doesn’t seem to dissipate over time.  In these cases, the proper type of follow-up resources, from critical incident stress debriefing, to peer counseling, to sessions with a qualified mental health professional, can be vital to shoring up and maintaining the officer’s mental toughness.  Remember, the ultimate goal of any post-incident psychological intervention should be to build you up and make you stronger.  Broader psychological issues that have to do with more general work and family stresses can be addressed at a later time.

Specific applications 
The combined arousal, attention, imagery, thought, language, and behavioral strategies of the METTLE training program are applicable to diverse areas of police work, including traffic stops and premises searches, suspect questioning and arrest, officer-involved shootings, and any law enforcement scenario that requires alertness, confidence, determination, clear thinking, and peak performance.  Know any that don’t?

The 3 Keys to Excellence
That’s simple: practice, practice, and practice.  Reading any book or taking any course is not going to turn you into a master of anything unless you work at it.  You know this from your experience with other types of training and it applies all the more to the kinds of mental toughness exercises you’re going to use to build your psychological body armor. 

The METTLE skills work best when flexibly used in creative combinations based on the situation at hand.  With continues training, practice, and application, the “mental toughness muscle” is progressively strengthened and thereby becomes better able to handle more and more complex challenges.  Remember: resilience, not resistance is the goal and the truly “tough” person – in the healthiest sense of the word – is not the man or woman who avoids all stress, but the one who knows how to deal with different levels of stress and crisis as they occur on the job or anywhere. 

Books by Dr. Laurence Miller

Disclaimer: This article is for educational purposes only and is not intended to provide specific clinical or legal advice. 

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