Police, Protests, and the Pandemic

Is this the right time to talk to cops about optimism?

Posted Aug 15, 2020

Wild One/Pixabay
Source: Wild One/Pixabay

I recently attended a virtual meeting of Division 18 of the American Psychological Association titled "Current Issues in Police and Public Safety Psychology." There was a range of presentations, all grounded in research.

I love my hard-working, serious-minded colleagues in police psychology. They understand the complexities of police work and how the job can wear down even the hardiest, most carefully screened cops — even more so now, in the midst of a pandemic, great social unrest, and a tsunami of devastating criticism. So, when a panel of presenters found that what mitigated stress and buffered mental health among their police officer subjects was social support and optimism, I almost fell out of my chair. 

Psychologists have known for years about the importance of social support. Most cops have two families: their real family and their work family. They need both. This can be a blessing and a burden. But optimism? How do you remain optimistic in a job that is literally swimming in negativity? Cops see more tragedy and cruelty in the first few years on the job than the rest of us will see in a lifetime. As far as I know, nobody ever calls the police to report they are having a good day.

Have my colleagues gone off the rails? Judge for yourself. I’ve taken some of what they had to say, rephrased, edited, and mixed their findings with my own thoughts and condensed the whole kit and caboodle into seven prescriptive ideas for creating optimism.

  • Every day, look for something positive you did. It’s probably going to be small, like making someone laugh or smile, or helping a co-worker rather than catching one of the FBI’s most wanted or finding a kidnapped child. In other words, keep your needs for perfection and other people’s approval down to a low roar. Even if no one notices, give yourself credit for the little stuff.
  • Make a concerted effort to override negativity by intentionally scheduling positive experiences in your daily life. Avoid negative co-workers. (This can be a little hard to do these days when morale is low.) Watch funny movies with your family. Play silly games with your kids. Spend more time with your dog. Dogs are inherently optimistic. It’s only us humans with our fantastically complicated brains who can predict our own deaths or worry ourselves into an early grave.
  • Study more about how your brain works. Our brains are amazing, but they are not always our friends. Don’t believe your own press notices. We’re never as good or as bad as we think. Because I am a writer as well as a psychologist, I took a virtual class from Anne Lamott who wrote the iconic book about writing titled Bird by Bird. She says most writers have two voices in our heads: one tells us we are brilliant and the book we are working on is destined to become an American classic. The other voice tells us we are untalented, boring, and full of you-know-what. The writer’s job, she says, is to shut both voices out. I would say the same advice applies equally to cops.
  • Learn to see your own thoughts as just thoughts, not truths. Challenge yourself. I sometimes think of my mind like a lava lamp. It just keeps pumping out these ridiculous blobs. They don’t mean anything and I don’t have to act on them. Meditators often imagine sitting in a calm place next to a river. They visualize their thoughts as moving through space like boats. When the party boat comes by, they can choose to hop on board or stay peacefully seated. Same for the boat full of angry thoughts, the boat full of ambitious ideas, the boat full of inner critics and, well you get the idea. 
  • Reconnect with your sense of purpose. You’re still the person you were despite all the wear and tear of police work. Don’t let them—whoever they may be—take away your trust, your kindness, your desire to be of service, all the things that motivated you to be a cop.
  • Remember to breathe, learn progressive muscle relaxation, and address stress directly. Cops are professional problem solvers. Use those skills to your own benefit for a change.
  • Finally, and I’ll write more about this in a future post: Forget a lot of what they taught in you in the academy, particularly about catastrophizing, imagining everything is going to turn to crap if you aren’t perpetually wary of everyone and everything. This is a work skill. It is not helpful at home. Stop judging the world by the small slice you see at work. Go on a psychological scavenger hunt. Every day, find someone or something that restores your faith in humanity. And then share it with someone else.

References

Couwels, J. Cnapich, E., Rodriguez, S. Bourke, M., Haskamp, C. Bryant, T., Schuhmann, B. (2020, Summer). First Responder Stress and Mental Health. Paper presented virtually at the American Psychological Association meeting, Division 18, Current Issues in Police and Public Safety Psychology.