Why Every Police Officer Should be Practicing Mindfulness (and how to do it)

Written by Retired Lt. Ricky Rhodes of Tigard PD/FBINAA #220

Take a deep breath through your nose, feel it vibrate as it fills your nasal passages and follow the breath as your diaphragm expands and contracts.

Ever heard of mindfulness? Well congratulations, that was your first crack at it!

Police Meditation

Take a deep breath through your nose, feel it vibrate as it fills your nasal passages and follow the breath as your diaphragm expands and contracts.

Ever heard of mindfulness? Well congratulations, that was your first crack at it!

Mindfulness is simply the practice of bringing your attention to the present moment for a sustained period of time. It can be applied to basically every faculty of your life, from washing the dishes to being on a patrol shift to lifting weights at the gym.

However, the best way to cultivate mindfulness is through meditation. I know what you are thinking by now, Ricky has totally lost his mind. Why is he talking about this spiritual voodoo nonsense?

Mindfulness is no joke and it has science to back it up – studies have shown that mindfulness training improves our ability to cope with stress and brain functioning in areas of awareness, concentration and decision making. The result is better job performance, better overall well-being and less incidence of mental illness.

In fact, mindfulness training is being used in hospitals to help terminally ill patients cope better, in workplaces to reduce stress and even in law enforcement agencies to help officers better cope with their daily job requirements.

Why do Police Need Mindfulness Training?

We all know too well the pressures and joys that come with police work. Being a police officer is not just a job, it’s a part of our identity and that is exactly why our job can impact our mental well-being more than we think it does.

University of Buffalo researchers conducted a decade long study on police officers and found that people in law enforcement suffer from higher rates of high blood pressure, insomnia, higher levels of stress hormones, heart problems, PTSD and suicide. Even more, life expectancy for a police officer is 10 years less than the average life expectancy in the United States, according to Badge of Life.

Police stress

The reason for this is not only the result of shift work and job stresses, but the stigma that officers must be mentally tough at all times. It is only in recent years that police departments are starting to provide holistic wellness programs for their employees that include mental wellness training.

Mindfulness practice has the potential to help police officers become better decision makers in high stress situations, helps improve our attention span for long patrol shifts and can help reduce the toll our job takes on our mental well-being

The Science to Back It Up

The parts of your brain that are responsible for fear and negative emotion diminish and the parts of the brain that improve attention, decision making and impulses thicken.

Your brain on meditation

If you are anything like me (overly rational), you need scientific proof that mindfulness isn’t just the next fluffy fad.

Among the hundreds of mindfulness studies that have been conducted, New Jersey Medical School conducted an 8-week mindfulness study and performed before and after MRI scans to analyze physical changes in the brains of participants.

There are 3 amazing changes:

    • The Amygdala – the part of the brain that processes fear and initiates our response to stress shrinks. The Amygdala tends to be larger in people that suffer from anxiety and depression.
    • Pre-Frontal Cortex – the part of the brain that governs complex processes, decision making, impulse control and concentration becomes thicker.
    • Connectivity Improves – connections between the amygdala and the rest of brain diminish and connections between the pre-frontal cortex and the rest of the brain activate more frequently.

This evidence shows that this isn’t just an acute response to meditation, but has long term implications that can positively impact our lives.

Where do I Start?

To recap, mindfulness is “the act of being fully presents, aware of where we are and what we are doing and not overly reactive to what is going on around us”

We are all capable of being mindful, but the majority of us lose this ability when we constantly find ourselves dwelling on past and future issues; often the result of the fast-paced style of living most of us are accustomed to.

 

How to be Mindful

Imagine you are sitting on the side of a busy highway and that the cars driving by are our thoughts. We tend to try and latch onto the positive thoughts and push away the negative ones. The problem is that the cars just keep whizzing by.

This clearly isn’t working, so you try a different approach. As the cars drive by you simply acknowledge them and then let them drive away. You no longer try and hold onto positive thoughts or push away the negative ones. Eventually you find that the cars start to slow down and that the highway becomes less busy. You are finally present.

Highway Meditation Analogy

The right side represents your thought pattern when you first sit down to meditate. Over the course of meditating your thoughts don’t disappear, but rather start to slow down; much like the traffic on the left side.

This metaphor is the key to mindfulness training. It is not about blocking out all thoughts, but accepting them (positive or negative) and not dwelling. You will begin to notice that as you maintain this mindset, your thoughts start to slow down and your mind becomes clearer.

This is obviously easier said than done, but we can train ourselves to maintain this mindset by following this plan:

Step 1: Mindful Breathing

The most common way to practice mindfulness is through mindful breathing. Simply follow these steps:

  • Sit in your chair with your back upright against your backrest and your feet firmly grounded on the floor. Hands can be facing down or up on your lap
  • Begin to focus on your breath
  • Do not try and change your breathing pattern, but simply observe it
  • As your focus begins to shift, acknowledge the thought or thoughts you had and gently bring your attention back to your breath

Remember it is not a failure when your attention waivers from your breathing and wanders to your daily checklists and things you have to do before you drop the kids off for school. The act of mindfulness is actually this process of realizing we are having these thoughts and bringing it back to our breathing or present moment. 

Follow this training regimen to help you stay on track:

Week 1: 2 minutes everyday
Week 2: 3 minutes everyday
Week 3: 5 minutes everyday
Week 4: 10 minutes everyday
Week 5: 15 minutes everyday

At first you may find it impossible to remember to bring your attention back to your breath. You may just find yourself getting lost in a day dream and before you know it your timer goes off. That is perfectly fine and very normal. I recommend using an app like Headspace which provides 10 minute guided meditations for every day of the week. The first 10 are free, so check out the app, by clicking the link below:

headspace

You can also try the short guided breathing meditation below: 

Step 2: Mindful Living

At this point, if you haven’t already found yourselves doing so, begin to apply your mindfulness training to everyday life.

The next time you are washing the dishes, don’t dwell on how much you dislike doing chores or what you have to do next. Instead focus on the sensation of the water hitting your skin and the cold dish on your hands. Try and keep your focus on the activity at hand.

The next time you are out for a walk, think about the muscles you are engaging as you lift your foot off the ground, while maintaining your balance on your other leg. Feel the sensation of the foot making contact with the ground. Try and hold this attention for a period of 5 minutes.

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Conclusion: How Mindfulness Impacted my Life

There was a certain point in my life where I realized that I needed to do something to better manage my response to stress. A lot of us spend great deals of time training our bodies, but neglect the mental aspect. Mental training is just as important as physical. I believe that if every police officer practiced mindfulness, we would have a lot less health issues in law enforcement.

In my experience with mindfulness, I found myself better able to hold my attention during long patrol shifts and found my mental acuity became much more refined. While on-duty, I found that I was not second guessing myself in situations that required quick response time. I also just felt generally more at ease while on shift and would come home in much less mentally exhausted state of mind. Not to mention, my sleep quality had a noticeable improvement. This of course wasn’t after a few days of practicing mindfulness, but after months of consistency.

Everyone’s experience is going to be slightly different, but that’s the beauty of mindfulness. Comment below about your experiences with mindfulness and meditation, I would love to hear your stories!

About Retired Lt. Ricky Rhodes

Ret. Lt. Ricky Rhodes

Ricky has over 30 years of experience serving in the police force and is an active member of the FBINAA community, so lets just say he may know a thing or two. Currently he works at InTime helping police departments solve their complex scheduling requirements.