The past year has posed many challenges to our typical notions of safety, predictability and control. The persistent nature of the nationwide and local civil unrest and COVID-19 public health restrictions have tested our resilience (and sanity) more than ever. Although it is entirely normal to experience a range of emotions and thoughts about these issues, it is important to effectively navigate these experiences to reduce potentially negative consequences to your well-being.
In times of heightened stress, our brains tend to want to focus on the problem as a means to identify and neutralize the threat. Working in a law enforcement environment can further condition your brain to focus on things that are “wrong” or problematic. This is a helpful mechanism when there are physical safety issues, as we can often use this information to drive actions in service of our safety. This brain mechanism is less helpful when we perceive threats to our internal/emotional safety that cause us to feel helpless, powerless and/or out of control. When stress is not managed effectively, the brain can adopt a sort of “emotional tunnel vision” and stay locked on negative thinking, which can increase perceived stress and decrease effective problem-solving. This can feel chaotic and negatively impact your health, relationships and overall well-being.
The good news is that focus is a tool we can control. You can actually train your brain to adopt a healthy perspective toward the varied thoughts and emotions that you experience when stressed. This can bolster resilience, which will allow you to recover more efficiently from adverse life experiences. As with any other habit, repetition and consistency are key to effective brain training. Challenge yourself to choose one of the below “brain tools” to train daily over the next couple of weeks and see how it helps you navigate stress:
• Emotion labeling creates distance, which acts as a buffer to discomfort. Take an observer stance to your emotions and describe what you are experiencing. Doing so acknowledges the emotion and allows you to experience it without being absorbed in it.
• Ask yourself, “Can/will I change it?” If yes, change it. If no, let it go.
• Shift focus from problem to gratitude. While completing your daily tasks, think of two things you are grateful for. You don’t have to get all warm and fuzzy, keep it practical. For example, “I’m grateful for my health and for still being employed when others are being laid off.”
• Reframe your perspective. There are different ways to think about a situation. For example, “Why does stuff like this always happen to me?” versus “Although this situation sucks right now, there are also good (or not too bad) things that happen to me.”
• Stay grounded using your senses. Stress can make us feel like we are on a hamster wheel, running and running just to never catch up. This can create a chaos loop where our thoughts and emotions feed each other. One way to disrupt this loop is by doing a grounding exercise. Try this: take a deep breath, now use your senses to identify something you see, hear, smell, taste and touch to help slow things down. Take a deep breath again. You should notice feeling a bit more relaxed.
If you would like to learn additional tools and skills to manage stress and enhance resilience, please contact Psychological Services Bureau at (213) 738-3500 to schedule a confidential appointment. You can also connect with a trained peer supporter or chaplain for confidential support by calling PSB and asking to be referred to one of these supportive resources.