Get into your mind so you can get out of your head
After a traumatic brain injury, I used mindfulness, meditation and breathing techniques to heal…and it helped create a more focused me
By Jeff Wig
It was becoming clear to me that something was wrong. Several times after reviewing a work document, I noticed I left out several words I was sure I had typed. When having a casual conversation with a friend, I would suddenly forget what I was trying to say. I was short-tempered and intolerant of both friends and family. I felt weak, and that is not me.
An endurance event takes a toll
Anyone who knew me would have said I was laser focused and sought out physically demanding challenges. I routinely took part in 24-hour endurance events where I pushed my body far and used my mind to go even farther. That was until a fateful night during one of those events when I face-planted into the concrete and came up dazed and bloody.
After the head injury, my ego urged me to “brush it off” and keep going, and I did finish the part of the event I was in, a 12-mile timed run/march. I withdraw due to my injuries; my body and mind took quite a hit, and I knew it was over.
Over the next few weeks, I tried to brush off the forgetfulness and the other issues. Finally, I listened to my wife and went to the doctor. By the end of the appointment, I was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and pulled from duty to rest and heal for the next several weeks. The weight of my mental limitations set in as I sat at home. I began to feel like I needed to just try harder and push through it. I did not want to feel weak. After all, by this time I had done so many events by using my mind to push my body, that I reckoned a little bump to the head was not enough to take me out.
Finally healed enough to be released back to duty, I was far from cured. Little advice was given on how to move forward to remedy the lingering issues I was having with stuttered speech, forgotten words and other memory problems. It was becoming clear that this injury was more serious than I realized.
I confided in some trusted friends about what I was going through. They knew me as being strong and focused but had also noticed changes in me after the injury. Luckily, these friends happened to be deeply involved in breathing techniques, yoga and meditation. Over time I trained with them and opened my mind to learning new ways to heal both my body and my brain. I spent several months working closely with them using newly learned breathing techniques, meditation and controlled body movement exercises. To my surprise, most of my memory and speech issues disappeared. I used mindfulness to heal…and it was helping to create a more focused me.
Police1 resource: How to develop a tactical yoga routine
The power of Mindfulness
Over the past several years, I have seen the term mindfulness spoken about in law enforcement and fitness arenas to describe ways to help reduce stress and improve overall health and well-being.
The term has a varying definition depending on whom you ask. So, the first question is: What is mindfulness? The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines mindfulness as:
1. The quality or state of being mindful. 2. Maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one's thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. Also: such a state of awareness.
In actual practice, though, I feel this definition needs to be revised. I relate mindfulness not only to a state of awareness but to a whole-body approach that incorporates the practice of yoga, meditation and controlled breathing in a combined effort to reduce stress and increase health and mobility.
Police1 resource: Practice mindfulness for just 2 minutes today
Interest in deliberate, controlled breathing for stress reduction has increased over the past several years.
Controlled breathing differs from meditation techniques in that you can control your breathing rate even if you are in an active state. This is especially true in high-stress careers like law enforcement, nursing, and emergency medical and fire services.
Controlled breathing can be used virtually anywhere to help control emotions, heart rate and clarity of thought. There are a number of benefits from using controlled breathing techniques, but one of the most notable is that controlled breathing through the nose has been shown to increase activity in the brain, affecting bodily activities like mobility, cognition and emotion.
Police1 resource: Why you should combat breathe before you leave
During my journey, I began to look forward to the calming effects meditation had on my mind, slowing things down and helping me not to feel overwhelmed. Meditation activates the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which stimulates the nerves that go to the head. Like the previously mentioned breathing techniques, meditation also helps to lower our heart rate, leads to relaxation and can reduce blood pressure.
A great starting point is "Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners" by Barry Boyce and "How to Sit in Meditation for Beginners" by Elisha Goldstein. Both articles help to cover several questions those just starting meditation would have.
Police1 resource: Why meditation belongs in law enforcement
After making the decision to let go of personal bias toward these practices, it felt like a fog was lifted. While not completely “fixed,” I have gotten to the point where I experience very few memory-related issues. I try to be disciplined throughout my day to focus on my breath and take short meditation breaks. In the end, the space needed to work on focus and clarity is minimal; it could even be the chair you are sitting in. Get into your mind so you can get out of your head.
1. Boyadzhieva A, Kayhan E. (2012.) Keeping the Breath in Mind: Respiration, Neural Oscillations, and the Free Energy Principle. Front Neurosci, 15:647579.
2. Boyce B. (March 28, 2019.) Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners. Mindful.org.
3. Goldstein E. (September 24, 2021.) How to Sit in Meditation for Beginners. Mindful.org.
4. Liang NC. (August 23, 2022.) A 12-Minute 4-7-8 Breathing Meditation. Mindful.org.
5. Mindworks Team. (July 12, 2022.) Meditation and the Automatic Nervous System. Mindworks.org.
About the author
Jeff Wig is a 22-year veteran of the Sycamore Police Department in Sycamore, Illinois. He has served as a patrol officer, school resource officer, detective, patrol and investigations sergeant, and is currently deputy chief of police over operations. He has a Bachelor of Science degree in Criminal Justice from Illinois State University and is currently working on a master’s degree in criminal justice education through the University of Virginia. He is a graduate of Northwestern School of Police Staff Command, Class 370, and a graduate of the FBI National Academy – Session 285.