[Publisher’s Note: I recently spoke with Dr. Elisha Goldstein, a psychologist and co-founder of the Center for Mindful Living, about what mindfulness practice is and how it can help first responders. The Center for Mindful Living is interested in helping first responders and is offering a webinar to Calibre Press readers, free of charge, entitled “11 Ways to Ease an Anxious Mind.”]
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is the practice of having more present awareness and focus at work and at home.
How does it work?
Mindfulness is practice and training in the ability to attend more intentionally in the present moment with a relaxed presence. Just like you go to the gym and focus on a muscle group to strengthen it, a mindful practice attends to something—let’s say the breath—and you focus the brain on breathing and strengthen the brain.
Your brain has procedural memory. That is, you remember procedures and not just isolated facts. Mindfulness is a procedure that allows you to stop being distracted by emotional reaction and discern what’s important in the moment. Sometimes what’s important is cooling down and calming yourself. Like you learned the procedure of typing and that became automatic, you can learn how to make this automatic too.
In a field of service like law enforcement, you tend to bring the stress home with you. You are tense and tight, and you might not be able to see the good in the world. Mindfulness makes you more resilient and helps you not to get lost in the fatigue of your service.
Imagine what the days, weeks and months ahead would be like if the ability to be present and regulate came automatically.
Finally, I should say that being mindful doesn’t necessarily mean being relaxed. You can be in a crisis and still remain aware and focused.
When an officer finds his- or herself in a situation where they know they need to calm down, what practice might help them to do so?
When you’re in an emotionally elevated space, you need to figure out what you need in that space. Before you can apply this in a crisis, you’ll likely need to take time to reflect on the crisis experience, slow it down, and figure out what you need.
Think back to a stressful experience, what did you need in that moment? It might be some kind of soothing or muscle release. No imagine giving yourself that, imagine softening your muscles or stretching your body. As you do this reflection practice, you create a memory that pairs the need with the action. The next time you begin to lose it, your brain is more likely to naturally recall it earlier and earlier, until the day comes that you remember it in the moment.
Over time you will get better at regulation. You will develop mastery and competence. Simply think about and visualize that moment and what you need that can be retrieved in those moments. Hunter gatherers had to know where food was and so they always paired context with their food. We have to pair context with mindfulness. We need to develop context-dependent memory, it’s really powerful.
How do you manage empathy fatigue?
You need to be compassionate for yourself. There’s always you. Empathy is for the other.
There’s no such thing as compassion fatigue, because compassion always includes supporting yourself. Rather, as you say, it’s empathy fatigue. Empathy fatigue is correlated with depression and anxiety. What can sustain you to create balance. You get negative and jaded. These are mind-traps that correlate with anxiety and depression. You need to be more present, and reduce what’s harmful and agitative.
A lot of police work long hours of shift work. They are often exhausted and overburdened. How can mindfulness help?
This is really hard. First, you need to acknowledge that it isn’t easy, and that tough moments are a part of life. You aren’t alone in this. So many other people are dealing with similar situations and you can visualize all those people, some of whom are suffering even more.
Ask yourself: How can I be more supportive of myself? Maybe you can take a nap or eat a nourishing meal or talk in a positive way to yourself. Negative self-talk is depleting. Understand the skillfulness of being supportive of yourself.
Blame is a big mind-trap. Blame is poison. It’s not an effective strategy. You feel uncomfortable and so you get some relief, but it’s a recycling of negativity associated with anxiety and depression. Avoid blaming yourself and others.
It’s easy to lose perspective but I’m not a first responder. (Actually I worked for a year at Berkeley mental health. Police would call us to assess people in mental crisis and we would help to get them squared away.) Once in while pause and remember the virtue of service and the importance of what you’re doing. Settle into and acknowledge yourself for your efforts and intentions. Settle into a sense of pride in what you’re doing. Research has found a strong connection between self-compassion and resiliency, and so turning the compassion inward here can help you be grateful for the good moments and graceful during the difficult ones. This has a lot of benefits.