Running towards dangerous situations that others run from is a critical component of law enforcement. However, performing these difficult tasks often makes officers susceptible to physical harm, and just as important, significant trauma and long-lasting mental health impacts.
To prepare for life in the field—and to keep their mental health, sanity and abilities up—officers must learn to build resilience. An increase in resilience helps individuals to be less impacted by negative events, recover faster and experience post-event growth. However, discussing resilience is easy. The process of actually building resilience takes time, energy, diligence and dedication.
Before building resilience, one must understand the different types and where an increase is most needed. Below is a list of the four areas an officer must focus on, as described in this PoliceOne article:
• Mental—The ability to cope with unique mental stressors and challenges
• Physical—The ability to create and sustain healthy behaviors necessary to enhance health and wellbeing
• Social—The ability to participate in healthy social networks that promote overall wellbeing and optimal relationships
• Spiritual—The ability to strengthen a set of beliefs, principles or values that sustain one’s sense of purpose
By developing resilience in multiple areas, an individual better develops mechanisms for protection against experiences that can be overwhelming or those that may result in mental health difficulties. This mental health reservoir of strength, so to speak, is what can give an officer extra strength to get them through the most difficult of events.
There are multiple ways of building resilience, but as noted by Dr. Lucy Hone, it often boils down to three main principles:
While this sounds like common sense, it is a principle one should circle back to often. When difficult situations occur, it helps knowing that suffering is a part of the human experience. Granted, difficulties in law enforcement are different from day-to-day difficulties, but the similarity is there.
Changing your mindset to reflect this helps remove the “why me” attitude and getting lost in your own troubles. Instead of focusing on oneself, work on building resilience in one of the categories mentioned above: mental, physical, social or spiritual.
One of the most important learnable skills in building resilience is focusing on the things you can change and accepting those you cannot. This ties in with the ability to move on—resilient individuals learn from the difficult moments and continue on, looking to the future armed with new knowledge, rather than dwelling on the past.
This is much easier said than done. People are naturally hard-wired for focusing on the negatives, such as threats and weaknesses, even one’s own. Naturally, the brain reacts accordingly, stress levels increase and resiliency diminishes. Take time to learn from the situation’s lessons, then leave the past in the past.
Self-reflection is most important immediately after a difficult situation. Ask yourself: is what I’m doing helping or harming me? This applies to various contexts such as thoughts, actions and decisions. If an individual is spending too much time reflecting on the traumatic incident in a “why me” manner, it is causing more harm than good and must be changed.
However, if the reflection was in a structured, educational manner—such as analyzing decisions that were well made or others that could have been improved—it may be doing good rather than harm. Officers must be self-reflective and attentive to see if they are increasing or weakening their resilience.
Resilience can be seen in an officer’s actions, not just during the difficult situation, but beyond. Oftentimes, resilience builds self-esteem and optimism as one’s outlook changes to seeing problems as a growth opportunity. In addition, an officer may have an increase in flexibility. Since resilient people often plan for multiple outcomes and are prepared to handle each, if an unexpected outcome arises, they have the ability to quickly readjust their priorities.
After all, if an officer is inflexible and cannot process an event that does not fit their pre-conceived outcome, they may experience higher stress, which quickly erodes resilience. Lastly, resilience manifests itself in the ability to move on, which was discussed earlier. Resilient people can accept and learn from critical incidents, then move on. These officers often have a strong social support network where they can discuss events, thus decreasing internalizing and suppressing frustrations. Social is one of the types of resilience mentioned in the second section, and like each type mentioned, it significantly impacts one’s ability to remain resilient.
Another way to build resilience is practicing difficult situations in a safe, controlled environment, such as within the VirTra simulator. Training after this manner allows officers to understand and prepare for stressful situations and teaches them how to handle the event—both in terms of actions and personal well-being. To learn more, please contact a VirTra representative.