Mindfulness and Officer Health, Job Performance, and Well-Being
By Konstantinos Papazoglou, Ph.D., Peter Collins, M.D., and Brian Chopko, Ph.D.
Police work involves extreme stress. Researchers have identified two types. Organizational stress results from circumstances, such as authoritarian supervisors, heavy workloads, bureaucratic processes, paperwork deadlines, and antagonistic relationships. Operational stress arises due to tense situations experienced by officers on duty.1
Law enforcement officers often handle life-threatening situations (e.g., domestic violence or terrorist attacks), protect civilians against dangerous offenders, and safeguard their own lives. In addition, they often respond to critical incidents before other frontline authorities, such as paramedics and fire personnel. As a result, they show empathy and support to victims (e.g., abused children or battered women) and ensure the safety of those individuals. Consequently, officers maintain a dual role—crime fighter and social service worker. They fit the label of “compassionate warriors” to fulfill the twofold function in police work.2
Administrators find it challenging to prepare their officers to face the emotionally volatile situations encountered in their jobs. For example, police officers may experience a dangerous situation that evokes fear, anger, or horror and then—while still in a state of hyperarousal—respond with courtesy and sensitivity toward citizens during routine interactions.
Extreme stress is not ephemeral, but omnipresent in police work. Estimates indicated that officers encounter more than 900 highly stressful and potentially traumatic critical incidents during their career.3 As their bodies prepare for situations in which they must react and make decisions rapidly and efficiently, officers experience elevated physiological reactivity (e.g., elevated heart rates and increased breathing levels).4
After such incidents, they must reset—reduce their high stress levels—quickly so they can face the next call. They need to mentally prepare for the possibility that subsequent incidents could present danger or require sensitive and tactical communication skills. For example, they may communicate with a suicidal person or support an abuse victim.
One expert coined the term “biological rollercoaster” as a metaphor for the fluctuating psychophysiological reactivity inherent in police work.5 Officers must prepare to transition from one call to another and respond to critical incidents effectively. However, ongoing exposure to stressful situations can hinder such mental adaptability.
For instance, after handling one crisis event (e.g., violence against a child), officers may remain fixated on that incident throughout the course of their shift. While understandable, such preoccupation can preclude them from staying mentally and physically versatile and ready for the next call, which could present another life-threatening situation.
To reset their minds after a difficult encounter, officers must adapt quickly to the here and now. Extensive studies on mindfulness techniques have revealed how to help individuals focus on the present and maintain contact with their minds and bodies. Mindfulness enables people to become fully aware of the current moment while acknowledging and openly accepting their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations.6
Mindfulness techniques prove practical and easily applied. Further, officers do not need special equipment or extensive time because they can conduct these practices briefly during different periods of their personal and professional life. To date, a plethora of empirical research findings emphasizes the multiple benefits of these techniques on individuals’ overall health and well-being.7
Researchers found that mindfulness techniques can support officers' well-being by preventing stress and depression, as well as other physical health problems (e.g., immune system illness).8 They developed interventions that facilitate the awareness of thoughts and physical reactions experienced during stressful activities to help regulate emotions and reduce arousal.9 Thus, mindfulness holds promise as a means of helping officers to better control occupation-induced emotional stimulation, resulting in enhanced field performance.
Dr. Papazoglou retired as a major in the Hellenic National Police in Athens, Greece, and is a clinical and forensic psychologist (supervised practice) in the Ministry of Community Safety and Correctional Services in Ontario, Canada.
Dr. Collins is the operational forensic psychiatrist with the Ontario, Canada, Provincial Police and an associate professor in the Division of Forensic Psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Ontario.
Dr. Chopko is an associate professor of criminology and justice studies at Kent State University at Stark in North Canton, Ohio.
Researchers designed a successful program specifically to promote police health and resilience. Staff members taught 62 officers how to increase their attention to everyday activities and practice situational awareness of their breathing and bodily sensations during work-related stressful events. Participants experienced fewer health issues, including sleep problems, occupational and general stress, fatigue, and burnout.10
Experts also have taught mindfulness techniques to senior police trainers so they can incorporate such practices into their curricula. In turn, those instructors teach these techniques to help officers remain focused on the present while resetting themselves for subsequent critical-incident training scenarios.11
Using a sample of 193 police officers, researchers demonstrated that an increased ability to maintain mindful, nonjudgmental awareness while on duty significantly resulted in fewer symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).12 Trauma-exposed individuals may cope by avoiding thoughts, feelings, and experiences that exacerbate post-traumatic distress—this often paradoxically intensifies symptoms.
Prescribing the opposite tactic, purposefully facing distress-inducing traumatic memories actually reduces symptoms and comprises a central component of the most effective PTSD treatments.13 As a result, mindfulness-based training and interventions that promote accepting an individual’s experiences without suppression and negative labeling also hold great promise as stress-reduction strategies among the police population.
“Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques prove practical and easily applicable for both on- and off-duty police officers.”
Mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques prove practical and easily applicable for both on- and off-duty police officers. Personnel can apply these step-by-step practices anytime without special equipment.14
- Take a few deep breaths or pause for a moment to breathe naturally and follow the air going in and out. You may want to say “in” and “out” to better concentrate.
- Observe your experience just as it is, including thoughts, feelings, and sensations. You can reflect on your thoughts. Notice that they are neither facts nor permanent. Focus on any feelings, such as job-related stress, and how your body expresses them. Do not apply negative labels, such as “bad” or “weak,” to your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. Rather, accept them without judgement.
- Complete the technique with something that will help you stay in the moment. For instance, you may talk to a colleague or check your bodily sensations (e.g., those resulting from standing up or sitting in the patrol car).15
You may use certain cues (e.g., wristbands or smartphone message indicators) as reminders to apply mindfulness techniques during your shift. In addition, right before, during, and just after exposure to critical incidents, you can apply step 1 and, briefly, step 2 as time limitations permit.
- Stop what you are doing, and put things down for a moment. Sit on a chair with your legs uncrossed and put your arms in a comfortable position on your armrests or thighs, palms up. You may have your eyes closed or opened.
- Imagine your breath flowing to each part of your body as your focus gently moves up. Concentrate on your breathing and notice how the air moves in and out.
- Direct your attention to the toes of your left foot. Notice the sensations while remaining aware of your breathing. Imagine each breath flowing to your toes. You may ask, “What sensation do I have in this part of my body?” After focusing on your left toes for a moment, move your attention to the arch and heel of your left foot and hold it there for a minute or two. Continue to concentrate on your breathing. Notice the feeling on your skin and the weight of your foot on the floor. Imagine the air flowing to the arch and heel of your left foot and ask, “What sensations can I feel in this area?”
- Follow the same procedure as you move to your left ankle, calf, knee, upper leg, and thigh. Repeat with the right leg, starting with your toes.
- Move through your pelvis, lower back, and stomach. Focus on the rising and falling of your stomach as your breath goes in and out.
- Concentrate on your chest, left hand, left arm, left shoulder, right hand, right arm, right shoulder, neck, chin, tongue, mouth, lips, lower face, and nose.
- Notice your breath in and out of your nostrils. Then, focus on your upper cheeks, eyes, forehead, scalp, and top of your head. Next, concentrate on and scan your body altogether.
- Complete the technique with something that will help you stay in the moment. For instance, talk to a family member or friend or enjoy a nice meal or refreshment (e.g., tea).16
“Officers can incorporate mindfulness techniques into training and police work, hence, producing multiple benefits for their health, resilience, job performance, and well-being.”
Do not worry if you experience thoughts, sounds, or other sensations coming into your awareness. Just notice them and gently refocus on your body. Your mind may become distracted from the object of your attention, and you could find yourself thinking of something else. Calmly and gently lead your mind back to the parts of the body that you have reached throughout these mindfulness practices. You may need to bring your attention back repeatedly to your body because the mind has a natural tendency to wander and get distracted.
Researchers have said that mindfulness techniques help officers maintain a high degree of adaptability when transitioning from one call to the next, enabling them to keep focus on the here and now. Thus, with mindfulness, officers better handle the extreme stress of police work by becoming aware of ways they can address the cumulative effect of their jobs with efficacy.17 Officers can incorporate mindfulness techniques into training and police work, hence, producing multiple benefits for their health, resilience, job performance, and well-being.
Mr. Papazoglou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, Dr. Chopko at email@example.com, and Dr. Collins at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 Alyssa Taylor and Craig Bennell, “Operational and Organizational Police Stress in an Ontario Police Department: A Descriptive Study,” abstract, Canadian Journal of Police and Security Services 4, no. 4 (2006): 223-34, accessed February 27, 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/242111567_Operational_and_Organizational_Police_Stress_in_an_Ontario_Police_Department_A_Descriptive_Study.
2 Brian A. Chopko, “Walk in Balance: Training Crisis Intervention Team Police Officers as Compassionate Warriors,” abstract, Journal of Creativity in Mental Health 6, no. 4 (December 2011): 315-28, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15401383.2011.630304.
3 Daniel Carmine Rudofossi, A Cop Doc’s Guide to Public Safety Complex Trauma Syndrome: Using Five Police Personality Styles, ed. Dale A. Lund (Amityville, NY: Baywood Publishing Company, 2009).
4 Judith P. Andersen, Konstantinos Papazoglou, and Peter Collins, “Reducing Robust Health-Relevant Cardiovascular Stress Responses Among Active-Duty Special Forces Police,” General Medicine: Open Access 4, no. 2 (March 2016), accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.esciencecentral.org/journals/reducing-robust-healthrelevant-cardiovascular-stress-responsesamong-activeduty-special-forces-police-2327-5146-1000225.pdf.
5 Kevin M. Gilmartin, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement: A Guide for Officers and Their Families (Tuscon, AZ: E-S Press, 2002).
6 Kirk Warren Brown and Richard M. Ryan, “The Benefits of Being Present: Mindfulness and Its Role in Psychological Well-Being,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 84, no. 4 (2003): 822-48, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.swarthmore.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/MindfulnessWell-Being1.pdf.
7 Bassam Khoury, Tania Lecomte, Guillaume Fortin, Marjolaine Masse, Phillip Therien, Vanessa Bouchard, Marie-Andrée Chapleau, Karine Paquin, and Stefan G. Hofmann, “Mindfulness-Based Therapy: A Comprehensive Meta-Analysis,” Clinical Psychology Review 33, no. 6 (August 2013): 763-71, accessed April 27, 2017, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272735813000731; and Shian-Ling Keng, Moria J. Smoski, and Clive J. Robins, “Effects of Mindfulness on Psychological Health: A Review of Empirical Studies,” Clinical Psychology Review 31, no. 6 (August 2011): 1041-56, http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S027273581100081X.
8 Paul Grossman, Ludger Niemann, Stefan Schmidt, and Harald Walach, “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Health Benefits: A Meta-Analysis,” abstract, Journal of Psychosomatic Research 57, no. 1 (2004): 35-43 accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.jpsychores.com/article/S0022-3999(03)00573-7/abstract?cc=y=; and Richard J. Davidson, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Jessica Schumacher, Melissa Rosenkranz, Daniel Muller, Saki F. Santorelli, Ferris Urbanowski, Anne Harrington, Katherine Bonus, and John F. Sheridan, “Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation,” Psychosomatic Medicine 65, no. 4 (2003): 564-70, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.ibrarian.net/navon/paper/Alterations_in_Brain_and_Immune_Function_Produced.pdf?paperid=4894262.
9 Jacqueline Lutz, Uwe Herwig, Sarah Opialla, Anna Hittmeyer, Lutz Jancke, Michael Rufer, Martin Grosse Holtforth, and Annette B. Bruhl, “Mindfulness and Emotion Regulation: An fMRI Study,” abstract, Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience 9, no. 6 (2014): 776-85, accessed February 27, 2017, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23563850.
10 Michael S. Christopher, Richard J. Goerling, Brant S. Rogers, Matthew Hunsinger, Greg Baron, Aaron L. Bergman, and David T. Zava, “A Pilot Study Evaluating the Effectiveness of a Mindfulness-Based Intervention on Cortisol Awakening Response and Health Outcomes Among Law Enforcement Officers,” abstract, Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology 31, no. 1 (2016): 15-28, accessed February 27, 2017, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11896-015-9161-x.
11 Christiane Manzella and Konstantinos Papazoglou, “Training Police Trainees About Ways to Manage Trauma and Loss,” abstract, International Journal of Mental Health Promotion 16, no. 2 (2014): 103-16, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/14623730.2014.903609.
12 Brian A. Chopko and Robert C. Schwartz, “The Relation Between Mindfulness and Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms Among Police Officers,” abstract, Journal of Loss and Trauma 18, no. 1 (2013): 1-9, accessed February 27, 2017, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15325024.2012.674442.
13 Carmen P. McLean and Edna B. Foa, “Prolonged Exposure Therapy for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Review of Evidence and Dissemination,” Expert Review of Neurotherapeutics 11, no. 8 (2011): 1151-63, accessed February 27, 2017, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/51529105_Prolonged_exposure_therapy_for_post-traumatic_stress_disorder_A_review_of_evidence_and_dissemination.
14 Bob Stahl and Elisha Goldstein, A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2010); Elisha Goldstein, The Now Effect: How a Mindful Moment Can Change the Rest of Your Life (New York, NY: Atria Books, 2012); and Marsha M. Linehan, DBT Skills Training Handouts and Worksheets, 2nd ed. (New York, NY: The Guilford Press, 2014).
17 Manzella and Papazoglou.