What I Learned from 1,000 Cops
What I’ve learned this year is that we can trust what research tells us about resilience in high performance arenas. At my practice in 2020, we provided over 1,000 check-ins and therapy sessions and found that there are 6 main pillars of resiliency. The officers who are currently thriving in their lives overall (even in the year 2020) have in place the habits and routines that prioritize what our brains and bodies need to be healthy and strong. Most didn’t always have it figured out, they experienced an imbalance, got what they needed to get on track and have stayed the course. I will give you some insight on these resilience factors below, in case you find it helpful for your own personal wellbeing and/or the resilience and longevity of the officers at your agency.
But first, let’s talk about stress and trauma. What sets trauma apart from stress is a feeling of powerlessness and/or abandonment. These often show up as guilt or anger following an incident or following an accumulation of stressful experiences. In Law Enforcement, you have the strain and intensity you’ve already encountered that your brain remembers and also what you know is ahead that you need to be prepared for. This reality means your job is one that demands high performance, readiness for high intensity functioning, and some serious recovery and resiliency habits.
Mental health is brain health. For police, it comes down to the effects of toxic stress on the brain and body. You are all mentally strong, that’s a given. You also have normal reactions to abnormal amounts of stress. And secondary stress effects like alcohol abuse, relationship strain, or performance challenges are common too. Here I’ve compiled a summary of what the brain and body need in order to be a high performer in a high intensity job that requires a consistent ready state.
1. Sleep & Recovery: Instead of the old approach of "I'll sleep when I'm dead", we now know that quality and quantity of sleep is primary. As humans, our systems are built for intensity and strain. We need mild and moderate amounts of physical and psychological stress to be healthy. The way we approach and perceive stress matters a lot too. However, the difference between someone who finds a feeling of burnout creeping in and someone who feels like their approach to the profession of Law Enforcement is sustainable likely has a lot to do with sleep and recovery. Generally, can you fall asleep and stay asleep? If you accumulate a sleep debt, can you catch up within a couple of days? Do you have enough time to relax and consciously calm your nervous system on a daily basis? Everyone is taught tactical breathing but it's not just for performing under immediate pressure. Focusing on your breath takes your mind off the typical past/future thoughts which gives your brain a break. The oxygen hit from your inhale is activating while focusing on lengthening your exhale calms your system.
The ability to both withstand high strain and intensity and then down-regulate, complete REM cycles while sleeping, and consistently return to a resting state is the most important resilience factor. The ability to reliably return to a resting state actually provides you with a true "ready" state. Your profession relies on this state; therefore, recovery is the highest priority.
Are there policies or practices your agency can encourage or implement related to healthy sleep schedules? Having enough days off between night shifts to catch up on a sleep debt is a great place to start. Requiring minimum amounts of time off between shifts can ensure there's enough time to get home, get at least 6.5 hours of sleep and return to another shift safely. Some agencies provide a quiet place to get a brief 20 minutes of shut-eye to enhance attention, focus, and performance during the shift. Have you provided any training to staff on sleep or mindfulness/breathwork? These are just a few ideas to bump this most important resilience factor to the top of the priority list.
2. Exercise, Nutrition, Hydration: Movement, exercise, and workouts are a close second in the resiliency priority list. If you aren't moving your body regularly, you still have an important card you can play to boost your resilience. Exercise stimulates chemical changes in the brain that enhance learning, mood, and thinking. Exercise even protects memory. Many agencies offer and encourage time in the on-site gym while onduty. I can’t emphasize enough how much I support providing this opportunity and finding ways to safely provide it throughout COVID.
If you aren't already putting some thought into your nutrition and hydration, you have another opportunity here to strengthen your most important organ - the brain. Food is fuel for your body AND brain. When you improve the bacteria in your gut by eating plenty of vegetables and fiber, you positively affect your brain and emotional health. Serotonin plays a role in our emotions and happiness and the vast majority of Serotonin is produced in the gut. Our brains can't function properly without enough hydration. Everyone wakes up in the morning dehydrated and most people are chronically dehydrated, but our brain cells depend on water to function.
3. Feeling Supported at Work & Connectedness at Home: I'm going to state the obvious and note that this resilience factor took a big hit for many Law Enforcement Officers this year. But did you know just how important a feeling of support is? Have you taken steps to plug in added support in your life or at work since it’s suddenly lacking in very important ways? We are literally built for connection. We can't survive as children without it and the need never goes away. This doesn't make our species weak; it makes us stronger than ever when we have a solid social support system both at work and at home.
At home, some are feeling more like a team than ever. Some families stepped up to the challenge in incredible ways while others are feeling the heavy toll that work stress can take on relationships. It takes incredible agility to operate in "cop mode" at work, another mode within the agency, and a whole other mode at home. Cop mode and home mode are essentially opposite ends of the spectrum. Cop mode gets reinforced for safety and survival reasons. The high performance-driven nature of the job can drain the majority of your reserves, while the guard-down, go-with-the-flow, emotionally tuned-in presence-mode needed at home is more about longevity and overall life satisfaction. Misapplication of any mode can understandably have detrimental effects. This year, we had many conversations about the importance of having or building the skill of leaving work at work, dialing back what street mode demands of you, and tuning into what you and your loved ones need from each other at home. This will always be an incredibly challenging aspect of the work you do so we end up paying a lot of attention here. If you commit to making deposits into your personal relationships as automatically as you make deposits into your retirement funds, you’ll have rich lifelong connections to enjoy.
Many officers have told us that despite the overall criticism, scrutiny and misinformation in society as a whole these days, they feel supported by their communities and agencies. More than ever, you turned towards your partners, reached out for help, and accepted help. On the other hand, some officers unfortunately question if their agency and admin have their back. Those who regularly see their admin in-person and consistently hear support and appreciation voiced seem to be doing much better and feeling more secure. Given that everyone on every level of Law Enforcement has a tough job, it's important, even imperative, that strong support structures and supportive policies be developed. There has been so much progress made in this area and I would say that these times call for an acceleration on this front. Peer Support Teams are developing and strengthening and occupationally competent care providers are becoming more accessible. Outside of my practice’s providers, I've trained about a dozen MN therapists this year in 16 hours of continuing education on how to provide mental health care to Law Enforcement. We have wellness training now specifically for Supervisors to help build cultures of support and wellness and we have four officers on staff helping build out our support structure in the ways you are requesting. When an officer is struggling, one of the first things I want to know is where does she or he have support and in what ways can we strengthen it so that they can recover as quickly as possible.
4. Living a Balanced Life: If we spend about a third of our life sleeping, about a third of our life working, that leaves about a third of our life for us to choose how we spend our time. And it really matters when it comes to brain health and resilience! Engaging in activities and hobbies you enjoy, connecting with your loved ones, and generally experiencing life as it is currently happening can pay dividends. Every officer we spoke with this year who is doing really well is capitalizing on their personal time, protecting it as a high priority and it's exciting to see it paying off. Staffing shortages and plenty of overtime during the social unrest this year have caused an imbalance for some. On the other hand, COVID schedules have allowed for others to have a work/life balance they've never experienced before. I've been joking with a couple agencies that if you kept a COVID schedule, you don't need a Wellness Program! But I'm only half joking because the amount of recovery time and the work/life balance that these schedules have allowed for has seemingly helped officers at these agencies be more resilient overall. COVID schedules can’t stay forever but hopefully the habit of living a more balanced life can.
5. Mindset & Attitude: When too much stress has stacked up, mindset and attitude can take a hit. For Law Enforcement, I think of a fuzzy mindset or negative attitude as a secondary effect of stress. When we address the stress accumulation, mindset and attitude often reset. The ways you commonly think about things matter a lot because our brain builds pathways that reinforce commonly utilized thought patterns. If you've started feeling overly negative, getting unusually frustrated with others, or are feeling an unsettling lack of control, you're likely having a stress response. When you carefully syphon out what you CAN'T control and take a strong hold of what you CAN control - your thoughts, actions, attitude, and effort (with the 6 resilience factors listed here), you will probably feel some relief. Our brains like to know how long things are going to last, what to expect, and what the outcomes will be; which is why this past year has been so hard on so many.
6. Access to Occupationally Competent Care: Last, but not necessarily least. Last because professional care isn’t always necessary like the other 5 pillars, but not least sometimes professional care is necessary for everything else to fall back into place. Helpers are understandably not always good at asking for help. Police are taught to hide their feelings as the mission always needs to take priority. Traditionally there has been a strong stigma towards mental health care. But things are changing! Mandatory mental health check-ins are now a regular practice at more than half of the approximately 30 agencies we work with. If everyone is having a conversation with a care provider and receiving information on resilience, nobody has to feel weak or singled out. It’s easier to reach out if you already know someone who can help. And we’re given the opportunity to help officers notice signs of a stress response earlier.
I think of us therapists as coaches more than anything. You are all very mentally strong so it's a matter of plugging in some support, maybe processing some accumulated stress, and allowing your natural resilience factors to fall back into place. It's all about living a sustainable life and having a sustainable approach to your work and your career. Thank you to everyone who is paying attention to wellness and creating access to what officers need to live happy, healthy lives. Our training and wellness offerings are available for you to review at www.marieridgeway.com and I encourage you to speak with any of the agencies we work with. We look forward to the year ahead and are up for the continued challenges right along with you.
About Marie Ridgeway MSW, LICSW, RYT
Marie Ridgeway MSW, LICSW, CCTP, RYT is a Master's Level mental health clinician with a specialty in treating stress injuries (PTS) and the secondary challenges that commonly occur (anxiety, depression, panic attacks, substance abuse, relationship challenges). Marie has Advanced training in Accelerated Resolution Therapy (ART). Marie and her staff of occupationally competent clinicians focus on working with Public Safety personnel.
Marie has worked in the field for over 15 years, she has trained over a thousand law enforcement officers across the state since 2017, and has worked with hundreds of LEOs and first responders in her practice. Marie brings knowledge and skills from her diverse work experience that includes child protection and psychiatric crisis team response. Marie is honored to be providing specialized care and consultation to those in public safety who serve our communities. Outside of work, Marie is active and outdoors as much as possible running, hiking, and traveling with her two children (ages 11 and 14). Marie is assisted in her practice by her German Shepherd, Charlie (a therapy dog in training).