Environmental and relationship stimuli trigger emotional and chemical responses that can alter our mood, influence the chemistry of our body and brain, and even affect our immune system.
When these stimuli trigger anxiety or a highly evolved fear, a finely tuned — and largely autonomic — cascade of biochemical change readies the law enforcement officer to physically and emotionally meet the perceived threat to safety.
For some, the response is momentary, lasting only long enough to avoid or overcome the threat. For others, however, it goes beyond the fight-or-flight response in meeting the threat and sets off obsessive rumination — worry.
If coping skills are not developed, simple stressors can become overwhelming and send our thoughts out of control — unchecked worry easily turns into an anxiety disorder. When this happens, an officer may be robbed of simple life pleasures — constant worrying fatigues the mind and the body. In law enforcement this can be deadly because our mind and our bodies are our two most valuable tools in staying alive.
People who worry too much often view life as overwhelmingly complex, but the solutions to stop worrying are quite simple.
1.) Focus on the Present
One of the hardest life skills to master is how to simply stay in the present.
Examining the past and planning the future are important, but people plagued by excessive worry live their mental lives in the past — examining and reexamining missteps and lost opportunities they’ll never get back — or in the future obsessing over events that have yet to happen.
“Mindfulness” defined by The Greater Good Science Center at UC-Berkley,is a “moment-by-moment awareness of thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment, characterized mainly by “acceptance” — attention to thoughts and feelings without judging whether they are right or wrong. Mindfulness focuses the human brain on what is being sensed at each moment, instead of on its normal rumination on the past or on the future.”
Mindfulness is a practice that, without ignoring past events or future concerns, puts them in perspective and combats worry by placing focus on the present.
Lean into the pain — move through and survive it — and ultimately you’ll realize it won’t really hurt you.
2.) Get in the Flow
University of Chicago researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi — the ‘father of Positive Psychology’ — discovered through his research that people are happiest when their thoughts flow.
Flow is achieved when the mental state of someone performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment.
Anxiety is self-focused. Being mindful — in the flow — is complete absorption of the moment and the activity.
If you’re caught in a stressful cognitive loop, schedule activities or time with positive people likely to create happy, pleasurable moments. Actively seek to deposit positive experiences in your emotional bank so that when the negative moments in life present themselves, you have something to draw from.
3.) Beware of ‘Thought Distortions’
Dr. David Burns — a psychiatrist and researcher at Stanford University identified common Thought Distortions (sometimes called “stinkin’ thinkin’”) that exist when people are experiencing worry and anxiety. Thought distortions are simply ways that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t really true. These inaccurate thoughts are usually used to reinforce negative thinking or emotions — telling ourselves things that sound rational and accurate, but really only serve to keep us feeling bad about ourselves or our circumstances.
Distorted thinking can snowball and come to be accepted as fact. Research indicates that once a thought distortion forms the mind has only 60 seconds to gain control and overcome the distortion before it becomes ingrained and so much harder to dislodge.
See Burns’ ten common thought distortions in the sidebar to the left.
4.) Relinquish Control
Know and accept what is beyond your control. Worry is rooted in frustration over our inability to control future events and the futility of trying to gain control. Being able to discern what you — as a police officer — have control over and that which is simply beyond your grasp allows you to focus your efforts.
This can be very difficult for police officers — maintaining situational control and safety of yourself and others is ingrained in you. Loss of that control — or allowing safety to be compromised — is seen as failure. When either happens we tend to second guess ourselves or armchair-quarterback others.
no matter how good a cop you are, certain things are beyond your control, including: the emotions you and others feel; the actions, thoughts, beliefs of other people; most circumstances you’ll encounter, no matter how hard you try to prevent them; and the infinite number of unseen eventualities shaping your future.
Control what you can, accept what you cannot, and remember that you are only responsible for your personal response to what you encounter in life.
Recognizing and knowing reasonable fear is a critical skill, both on the job and off. It can be difficult to discern between what reasonable fears are and what destructive, inhibiting worry is. Worry unchecked easily morphs into an anxiety disorder and those suffering from anxiety are among the hardest to work with because they don’t like to give up their ingrained thought distortions. Anxieties, unlike realistic fears, are selfish and dominate thoughts and actions of those who suffer from them.
With positive effort you can avoid being trapped into destructive patterns of worry.