During the recent Calibre Press Webinar, Why Command Staff Needs to Prioritize Officer Health and Wellness, traumatic stress expert Nick Greco discussed steps law enforcement leaders can— must—take to ensure that their officers have access to and are using resources that will protect and enhance their mental and emotional health. 2,000 officers registered for that program, which we saw as indicative of a widespread recognition of the importance of this topic.
The intense level of stress, trauma and overall pressure officers consistently face is grueling. “In your career as a cop, there’s no way, short of staying under your desk in the station house, that you can avoid confronting the types of situations that will shock your very core and work to drag you down emotionally,” writes Cary Friedman, author of the excellent and highly recommended new book, The Superhero Handbook for Cops (Foreword by Jim Glennon, incidentally). In a chapter focused on emotional resilience, Friedman, a longtime law enforcement trainer, consultant and stress management expert, discusses how officers can develop abilities to act effectively during crisis situations, adopt attitudes that will minimize the event’s emotional impact on you, and to “acknowledge and respect but not absorb the toxicity of the event.”
“I’m not suggesting you employ some sort of artificial and impossible duality of person here—I fully understand that the kinds of traumatic events with which you are faced are no respectors of your human feelings, that they don’t simply slap at some isolated or discreet ‘professional’ part of you without taking a good two-fisted attempt at your emotional core.”
In this special two-part series, we’re going to share advice Cary details in the “Emotional Resilience” chapter of The Superhero Handbook for Cops. With that, here are the first 6 of Cary’s 12 tips for strengthening and conditioning yourself emotionally.
1. Keep your word and pay back your emotional debts.
A particularly powerful––and potentially dangerous if misused, as we’ll see––thought technique is what we call compartmentalization. This is a tool employed to help neutralize mental trauma, debilitating emotions, and grief in the midst of a crisis. When powerfully negative events trigger strong emotional responses, the result can be debilitating to the point where it negatively affects your performance. Obviously, a SEAL on a combat mission or a law enforcement officer in the middle of a dangerous episode or confrontation can’t afford for this to happen. Therefore, in order to maintain your effectiveness and mental focus in times of crises you must invoke your training to put those feelings and emotions in a mental adamantium “black box,” and store them for a future moment when stakes aren’t so high or lives are not in danger. Then, when circumstances and time allow, you will consciously turn to those feelings and process the emotions consciously, directly and effectively. This is a psychological skill that takes practice and precision but that will help you maintain the focus and clarity needed to complete your task and survive the situation in real time, but preserve the opportunity for you to deconstruct the associated stress at a later time. Potterat (retired Commander and former head psychologist for the U.S. Navy SEALs) confirms that employing this practice doesn’t mean you never process those feelings and emotions, but that you set them aside to complete what’s before you, and then at a later date do what you must to effectively process what you were feeling. This “effective processing” may––perhaps ought to––involve work with a mental health professional.
Too often, superheroes of the military or law enforcement kind, in the midst of dangerous episodes, lock those emotions tightly away to stay focused and resolved and efficient and strong, with an implied promise to themselves that they will return sometime soon to set them free, give them their proper attention. But then they never do. They keep them corked in a bottle––tighter than Captain Tony Nelson ever woulda done to Jeannie even on his orneriest day.
But if you locked ‘em up you gotta let ‘em out before they break out. That’s how compartmentalization works. The healthy locking up presupposes the healthy letting out. Let ‘em out at a time and place of your choosing and on your terms, or they will stage a break when you least expect it on their terms, and I guarantee it will be ugly.
It’s important to appreciate here that processing those emotions—albeit at the right time and under the proper circumstances—is absolutely critical. In fact, one of the seriously detrimental side effects of not processing negative feelings is an “emotional numbness” that affects many officers who don’t ask for help when they need it. Maintaining mental health is of the utmost importance in police work, and yet it’s something that many cops neglect.
So, in the rules that follow I supplement this first point with techniques for processing emotions, tips to use now––immediately––but that will also be helpful in conjunction with any support you may at times wish to seek from a mental health professional. Either way, these techniques will supplement and turbocharge the work you’ll do.
2. Get sufficient rest and learn to relax on a regular basis.
When you are physically off or away from work, take your thinking away with you, too. Off the clock, work to separate from thoughts about work-related issues, troubles, or problems.
Most cops are seriously sleep deprived, so as I noted above, consciously make getting enough sleep a priority. It’s cheap insurance and does a body good. You already know that emotional health begins with physical self-care.
And as important as is exercise, don’t fall into the trap that you can simply exercise yourself to sleep and peace. Meaning, aerobic exercise that exhausts the body is an important adjunct to––but must never be a substitute for––a regimen of emotional self-care. Remember our Principle of Interconnectedness and tending to the physical aspect of ourselves will help best only if we’re doing the other emotional work as well. When cops think they only need tend to their bodies and that alone will heal them emotionally, what really happens is that unresolved emotional problems remain, fester and grow.
3. Participate regularly in stress-management sessions.
I scoffed the first time––the first thirty times––someone suggested I try meditation. I wish I had tried it earlier and saved my scoffing for the guy who sold me a rowing machine. But meditation doesn’t have to be complicated or exotic, and you don’t need the Maharishi or an ashram––you’re not competing with some ninety-year old yogi in the Far East who can levitate stuff. You’re just trying to keep yourself sane and whole. To do that you don’t have to learn esoteric or overly complex rituals. The basic techniques of meditation will work wonders. Google “law enforcement meditation” or words to that effect and read any of fifteen articles on PoliceOne. John Marx has written well about meditation on copsalive.com. It takes only a few minutes to learn a simple meditative technique and pays off with a lifetime of relief.
4. Transition to a lower level of vigilance (not to ‘no vigilance’) when off duty.
Picking back up on our point about not taking work home with you, our friends and mentors John Marx and Commander Potterat have actually undertaken a detailed analysis of the problem, especially highlighting the difficulties that arise from an over-active ponderer as it relates to emotional health maintenance. Cops––like all extreme performers used to operating at the upper levels of human performance––have a tendency to “over think” or focus with scary intensity on the problems or issues that confront them. On duty, when the stakes are always high, “hypervigilance,” of course, is definitely the way to go; to do otherwise would be irresponsible and foolhardy. Off duty, however, is a different story. Remaining in that state of hypervigilance is not only no longer required off duty, it’s flatly unhealthy. Staying keyed up for too long can make you crazy and sick.
Note the parallelism: Remember what we said about compartmentalization, the very powerful technique used to manage the human stress response during critical, life-threatening situations? Again, it has its place and, used appropriately, it’s extraordinarily effective; but you can’t just keep using the technique forever and never turn it off. At some point you have to unlock that compartment and let your humanity back out.
Well, it’s the same thing here: Hypervigilance works in a certain set of circumstances, but it’s definitely not a “one size fits all” permanent state in which to reside. As a general rule, a little patience and forbearance are always welcome but you shouldn’t be practicing non-stop hypervigilance at home with your family, no matter how bad a cook your mate is or how annoying your in-laws are. If you need three guns to go get your mail because of your adherence to the principle that “two is the same as none,” well, it’s highly likely your engine’s been revving too high for too many miles. And as my Dad taught me, keep a motor at the redline too long and not under load and you’ll wish you’d bought that extended warranty from the dealership. Your emotional well-being works pretty much the same way: Keep your emotional engine revved even when you’re not under load––i.e., dealing with a real, stress-filled situation that good sense dictates use of hypervigilance––and you will burn out your engine. Sometimes you have to let the system idle. Or even turn it off, let it cool. But there comes a point, and that point is the end of your shift when the situation is no longer hot or potentially hot, and the appropriate course is just to take your foot off the psychic pedal, slow through the gears as you ease into something that approaches a Sunday afternoon drive by a little old lady in a low-mileage Edsel, and begin to relax. As my colleagues like to point out (they regularly say cryptic things like this), context is critical.
When discussing this phenomenon of vigilance control, Dr. Potterat prefers the metaphor of a light switch with a “dimmer” feature, rather than with the all-or-nothing character of the typical on/off lever. Admittedly, controlling by dialing down on command one’s level of vigilance is not easy to master, and operating these psychological survival mechanisms is considerably more challenging than adjusting the chandelier’s brightness over your Thanksgiving table, but it can be learned, and it can be done. You now realize why it’s important to do so.
And we certainly are not saying that vigilance has no place off duty––that you should be oblivious to danger when away from work! There’s a lower––but non-zero––level of vigilance that is appropriate for all of us as citizens in the community, and you can operate comfortably and responsibly at that level. The point is that many of the techniques that make you an optimal performer under tough conditions when the stakes are high exact a heavy price if you use them constantly, indiscriminately, on-duty and off. Of course, using these techniques in the right way in the right measure can literally save your life––physical, and every other dimension. But treating them like a 24-hour diner and refusing to develop an ability to turn them off or dial them back to manageable levels when appropriate can exact a very heavy toll on your emotional health.
By the way, this rule has a very important parallel application in the spirituality realm, because unchecked hypervigilance off-duty adversely impacts spiritual health as well. (If you can’t wait––and who could blame you––see Rule 3 in Chapter 6, where we describe a simple technique you can practice to help bring your level of vigilance back to an acceptable degree when you’re transitioning to your civilian identity.)
5. Participate regularly in positive non-work-related activities and cultivate interests in hobbies or other non-job-related matters.
Turn your thoughts and interests to a hobby or some passion you cultivate. Allow yourself to be enthusiastic about, caught up in, and focused on the activity. Don’t try to force negative thoughts out; like your brother-in-law, they have a way of forcing their way back in.
An old adage has it that “an idle mind gives Satan pleasure.” I’m not sure about all that, but I know too much unproductive time wreaks havoc on a person’s emotional well-being. An idle mind is a psychic free space, and as Professor Bunsonburner tried drilling into you in Physics 101, nature abhors a vacuum. If you’re not regularly absorbed with and challenged by thoughts of a substantive, productive, engaging variety, the temptation will be to ruminate repeatedly about the stress, the sadness and the darkness inherent in aspects of the job.
Don’t ever underestimate the danger of building your whole identity around your career. Survival is a whole-life skill dependent on having many things, not just your nine-to-five, to give you meaning. Thus, in addition to the many emotional-resilience-building techniques we’ve been talking about, family, sports, hobbies and other interests can grow and enrich your life and make you more resilient to the negative effects of stress.
Moreover, according to Dr. Kevin Gilmartin, once having had such positive, non-work-related activities and interests and then losing them can set into motion an emotional imbalance that culminates in a whole host of negative consequences, like losing ethical clarity and surrendering to acceptance of professional misconduct. More on this in the chapters to come, but for our purposes here just note the importance of developing and maintaining healthy interests outside of work.
6. Cultivate a few close, trusted friends (Part 1)––of the law enforcement variety.
Don’t keep it bottled inside, but talk. Let it out, and let it go.
The process of finding meaning I recommended earlier isn’t always––or optimally––a one-person proposition. Passing through repeated tough situations oft times works better if you’re doing it with someone who gets you and can relate to what you’re going through. That’s why non-bitter cop friends are more valuable than gold. Finding meaning in your experience––whether it’s policing, illness, relational strife, financial hardship––often means talking about it with someone who truly understands. They know what you go through, so their listening means something to you in a way that a civilian’s listening might not––probably can’t. Their listening will allow you to feel fully heard and understood.
So, forge and maintain close ties with particular friends inside law enforcement, trying to use good judgment to identify the people on whom you can rely to be honest with you, as well as to be loyal. And while it’s important to have people we can count on, nevertheless, we need to appreciate that we cannot expect everyone to whom we may be close, whether by blood or virtue of locker location, to share our sensitivities and individual needs. Friendship takes work––you have to be prepared to give as good as you get. Besides, you don’t need an unlimited number of confidants––in fact, the care and feeding of a friendship make it impractical to have even a small cadre. Two is a good number––neither too many nor too few––and of course three worked well for the Musketeers. But you don’t want or need a troop. However many you have, work on deepening those friendships now, in the good times. It’s the best investment you can make.
Therefore, before the days change to months and the months to full-blown crises, seek out special, reliable friends to express your worries, pressures and concerns, and also your appreciation of their support. If you can build strong emotional bridges on strong foundations with even one or two people, you may find very shortly how connectedness to others can be foundational to the earthquakes of your career. Set aside time for jawin’ (or schmoozing, depending on which part of Louisiana or Jersey you’re from) with your friends. Cultivate the ability to go deep and be honest with them––don’t just ride the surface––and give them the permission they need to be honest with you. I’m not saying you always have to make like an episode of Dr. Phil, dripping with maudlin or mawkish sentimentality. Casual chatter has its place, too, and might do it for everyone most of the time and sometimes for you as well, but develop the skill to share the things that matter when you’d like to, and wisely pick one or two trust-worthy colleagues to share them with when you need to.
Obviously, for most of us our closest confidants are our spouses and significant others––our immediate family––and there’re good reasons why we trust them so. Nevertheless, it’s the rare noncop who can give you the feeling of being understood that is so important to healing and health.
[Sidenote: In the absence of friends like these, if you need support, consider calling a crisis or a peer-support hotline. The great state of New Jersey hosts a wonderful organization, Cop2Cop, that provides a 24-hour helpline for law enforcement officers and their families. Phones are staffed by retired officers whose voices on the other end of the line inspire trust in callers. West Coast-based Safe Call Now offers important, life-saving support as well. There are other wonderful peer-support organizations; check for one nearest you, and don’t hesitate to call if you feel you need––or just want––support from someone who’s “been there and done that,” who understands what you’re going through.]
Editor’s note: We recommend that every cop read The Superhero Handbook for Cops, which is available for $19.95 on Amazon.com. We’re impressed with Cary Friedman’s relatable, on target and highly engaging approach to navigating the nuances, challenges and potentially dangerous pitfalls of police work. This book can help—maybe even save—cops.
With that, we thought we would share Jim Glennon’s Foreword from the book. Jim writes:
“As I sit here thinking about how to begin explaining the importance of this powerful new book, I realize that it’s more important to first explain how I would describe its author.
“Knowing Cary Friedman, he’s thinking, ‘It’s not about me. It’s about the message of the book,’ but I disagree. As I see it, the heart of a book beats with the heart of the author and that couldn’t be truer when it comes to Cary and The Superhero Handbook for Cops.
“Cary is candid. He’s not afraid to be a contrarian. He’s confrontational…but not in a bad way. He challenges misunderstandings about things like spirituality, ethics and morality when viewed from a law enforcement perspective in an effort to explain what they actually mean for cops and why they’re important concepts that impact every element of their professional and personal lives.
“He’s fully committed on every front; as a law enforcement chaplain, as a trainer, as an author and as an unabashed supporter of police officers.
“He’s courageous. He’s got what it takes to walk into a room full of cops and start off by saying something like, “Let’s talk spiritualty…” and survive the collective, oxygen-depleting gasp.
“He’s also humble enough to respond gratefully to those cops who listened to him speak and approach him later to explain that they’ve “never looked at things that way before” as they thank him for giving them a new outlook on their career and their approach to life.
“Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Cary knows cops. I mean he really knows them…on every level. On the inside. On the outside. On the street. In their homes. He’s walked protectively in front of them, united beside them and supportively behind them. There’s no uninformed, inexperienced, theory-spouting babble here. Cary is the real deal.
“OK, now let’s take a look at The Superhero Handbook for Cops.
“To start, you can take every descriptor I used above and apply it directly to this book. In it, Cary does what he does best. He identifies key elements that create and support a well-balanced police officer—things like emotional resilience, physical & mental health, an understanding of ethical decision-making, spiritual clarity, dedication to morality, etc.—and talks about them in an impressively down-to-earth and creatively entertaining fashion.
“As you dive in, you’ll quickly forget you’re reading a book and begin to feel like Cary is in the room talking directly to you. His tone is extremely engaging and his practical approach cuts through any dry, ethereal haze of conceptualism. Nothing confusing or painfully obtuse or super philosophical. Cary gets right to the point and explains exactly why what he’s talking about applies to you, as a law enforcement officer, and to the entire law enforcement profession.
“In addition to being a roadmap for enhancing your resilience, your overall wellness and your career- and life-spanning level of professionalism, The Superhero Handbook for Cops also boldly engages topics that can be difficult to discuss but critical to ensuring that you don’t unwittingly fall prey to misguided thinking that can destroy your career, your agency and your relationships.
“For example, in a chapter titled, Bad Guys Who Think They’re the Good Guys – and How to Ensure You Never Become a Bad Guy, Cary fearlessly discusses issues like bias, ‘Noble Cause Corruption,’ Ethical Drift and the Continuum of Compromise and explains how bad things can happen to good cops who are driven by misguided thinking to commit seemingly inconsequential indiscretions with harmless intent and perhaps in the name of the greater good. When it comes to Cary and his approach to discussing ethics, morality, and righteous decision-making, there is no stone that will be left unturned, no critical issue that will be ignored and no end to the battle to keep police officers safe, successful and on solid ground…every day and on every shift.
“I am truly honored to have been asked to write this Foreword. Doing so has been both a joy and a privilege and my gratitude to Cary for his priceless, life-saving work is virtually impossible to measure.
“Speaking of joy, I want to mention one last topic Cary hits on in this book that’s rarely—if ever—discussed yet critically important for protecting the minds, hearts and souls of all of you. That topic is joy. If you ask a cop to describe what they get out of their work, how often do you think the word joy would be involved? I’m willing to bet the answer is never.
“Why is that?
“Realistically, that’s probably a pretty easy question to answer…on the surface. Cops everywhere are trying to keep their heads above water in a sea polluted with pain, suffering, chaos, anger, tragedy. For the most part, that’s always been the case. But today, given the onslaught of anti-police rhetoric, the political undermining of the criminal justice system and the increasing pressure put on less cops to do more work and face more danger for little, if any, recognition or respect makes it virtually unimaginable that a police officer would describe any part of their job as “joyful.”
“But again, why is that?
“If you ask Cary Friedman, he’ll point out what he knows deep in his heart: That police work is noble—NOBLE—and sadly, in the dust of war, a great number of officers have lost sight of this fact. That is tragic.
“They’ve been overwhelmed by negative voices and injured physically, mentally and emotionally by damaging forces. They’ve been left alone to fend for themselves at the very times support from the public, the political system and even their own agencies was most critical.
“They have been driven to undervaluing how impressive it is to commit to standing the line between right and wrong, good and the evil. They are forgetting to remind themselves of how crucial it is to have someone like themselves selflessly dedicated to protecting the vulnerable and confronting the predators.
“They have forgotten that they are modern day, in-the-flesh superheroes. Cary Friedman and The Superhero Handbook for Cops are here to remind them of that.”