Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Optimism. In Law Enforcement? by Jeff Shannon, LMFT

The other day as I was driving, I saw a twenty something guy skateboarding down the sidewalk. His clothes were dirty and torn, and he carried a piece of card board under one arm with writing on it. Within only a few seconds of seeing this young man, a rather harsh judgement popped into my mind, the specific words of which I’ll plead the 5th on. 

In this same few seconds, however, something quite amazing happened. Before I even completed the sentence in my mind, replete as it was with a colorful adjectives, I stopped myself. Not only did I stop myself, but I turned my attention to the young man’s lime green beanie cap. I said to myself, “I like that cap!” I said it again as he faded off beyond my side view mirror, “Cool cap.” 

What I realized in this very brief moment in time was that I’m becoming more “positive.” Having worked in law enforcement for ten years now, this is no small accomplishment. As just about every cop knows, the more years we have on, the more pessimistic we tend to become. Pessimism, along with its ugly cousin cynicism, follow naturally as we spend years interacting with people at their “Maddest, baddest and saddest,” as Kevin Gilmartin puts it (Gilmartin is the author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement). 

Optimism helps us bounce back from adversity of all kinds. Getting punched in the face is adversity. While I certainly hope no LEO has this experience, if it does happen, getting punched in the face does offer a moment of truth regarding ones’ ability to bounce right back and stay in the fight. Adversity can also take the form of events as routine as being stuck behind someone with no driving skills, working for a horrible boss, or being exposed to a critical incident. 

Dr. Dennis Charney at the Mt. Sinai School of Medicine, makes his living by studying how people respond to adversity. Specifically, he’s interested in those who are excellent at bouncing back. He interviewed Vietnam veterans who were held in captivity, tortured and kept in solitary confinement for many years. He came up with ten characteristics of those who didn’t suffer from PTSD or depression after their imprisonment. Guess what the number one characteristic of resilient individuals was. Yeah, it was optimism. 

Your daily experience reveals that some people seem to be naturally more optimistic than others. By the way, we’re not talking about those who are obnoxiously and unrealistically happy about everything. We’re talking about those who understand the gravity of the adversity before them and yet see the cup as half full. Regardless of how naturally optimistic you are, the fact is we can work toward being more optimistic (and therefore more resilient) if we so choose. 

Having made baby steps myself toward being more optimistic, I can report the following benefits, 

  • I’m less pissed off. 
  • I feel better in my skin.
  • People like being around me more (I think). 
  • I’m a better role model for my kids. 
  • I have less toxic stress hormones coursing through my veins.
  • My overall life satisfaction is better. 

Okay, assuming I’ve sold you on working toward being more optimistic, how do you “do” it? Step One is the most difficult. It involves bringing conscious awareness to our thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations. The great thing is, we have lots and lots of opportunities to practice this stuff. 

Angry, impatient, pessimistic thoughts are all opportunities! If you bring conscious awareness to them - in other words, you catch yourself in the act - you can choose to shine the light of conscious awareness on to something more positive (like the guys’ cool beanie). Doing it just one time will show you it’s possible. 

Suddenly realizing that you’re feeling angry, tense, or irritable also presents the opportunity to ask yourself why you’re feeling that way. Then, you can add some positive (and probably more realistic) thoughts into the mix of your mind. Feelings don’t come out of the blue, they are the logical result of thoughts (e.g., if you think “I’m late!” you will begin feeling anxious and your body will tense up). You can also take a few belly breaths to relax. 

Finally, if you don’t catch yourself in the act of thinking or feeling, your body may tip you off. If you’re sitting at a computer banging out a report and you suddenly realize you have a knot in your neck, again opportunity time. 
Although I’ve used a lot of words to describe this process, keep in mind it can happen lightning fast (like the example I used at the beginning). 

If you’re disciplined enough to exercise regularly as most LEO’s are, then your disciplined enough to work on your optimism. It’s one of the best investments in your overall wellness you can make. 

 Jeff Shannon is a Police Officer, law enforcement instructor, and Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in northern California. 

jeffshannonmft@gmail.com 

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