5 Scientifically Proven Ways to Help Increase Your Wellbeing
During the last several weeks law enforcement officers nationwide have been tried to the nth. Rioting, officer injuries and line of duty deaths, ongoing pandemic issues, and a plethora of hate towards law enforcement officers have plagued each of us, exhausting us physically, mentally and emotionally. On top of that, there has been mixed messages and, in many cases, even outright distain for police from pundits, politicians, elected officials, and the public at large. Police do not feel supported or appreciated. Unfortunately, this and other cumulative job stressors leads to severe exhaustion and complete burnout.
At one point or another in a law enforcement officer’s career, distress from the deliberate exposure to traumatic events is bound to occur. Frankly, it’s unavoidable. Acute and sometimes long-lasting stress is a normal part of the job. Regrettably, unhealthy or maladaptive reactions to that stress can negatively affect work performance, marriage and relationships, and personal life. Sometimes such stress can lead to suicide.Officer safety and wellness is an imperative duty all leaders should focus upon first and foremost. It is critical to “research, discuss, and promote the best possible information to keep our nation’s law enforcement officers safe on the job,” and that includes mental and emotional health and safety.
Below are five areas that can change your health, both physically and mentally, for the better: Sleep, Supplements, Exercise, Positivity, and Gratitude.
1) Sleep, Rest and Rejuvenation
Science has proven that not getting enough sleep will negatively affect our minds and our bodies. The lack of sleep makes problem-solving more difficult, impairs concentration and reasoning; it can lead to obesity, and, frankly, makes us more irritable. Of course, being more irritable can lead to more complaints and/or inappropriate policing actions.
When our Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) activates, the chemical reactions in the mind begin, which also affects our bodies. When we get amped up, it makes it difficult to unwind and fall asleep. Staying asleep can also be difficult after SNS activation. Research has shown that we need at least seven to eight hours each night, but no more than nine hours.
While there may be a number of reasons why you’re having troubles falling or staying asleep for that long, here are some suggestions that may help.
Taking naps can rejuvenate us. Research has shown that it’s best to take either a 30 minute or a 90 minute nap. A few years ago, Las Vegas Metro Police Department encouraged napping at work utilizing sleep rooms. Over the next several months, the agency reported a 60 percent drop in use of force.
Create a sleep routine
Go to bed at the same time and get up at the same time. I realize this can be difficult, especially with detective call-outs, SWAT call-outs, peer support call-outs, or little kids who wake us up. But staying on the same sleep routine will help you be able to get to sleep and stay asleep.
Stephen Porges, a leading expert in developmental psychophysiology and developmental behavioral neuroscience, and the founder of the polyvagal theory, suggests that breathing out twice as long as we inhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system. Deliberately breathing in this way reverses the effects of the SNS which, in turn, helps calm us down. If you’re having trouble relaxing or falling asleep, try calming down by inhaling for four seconds, holding your breath for four seconds, and then exhaling for eight seconds or more.
Avoid blue light before bed
Don’t look at your phone, tablet, laptop or any other screen up close at least one hour before going to sleep. I realize there are now blue light filters on devices, but I’d personally recommend turning off devices close to your face altogether. If you want to read, use an old-fashioned hardcopy book. Many scientific studies have shown that blue light before sleep isn’t good for us.
Avoid too much TV and Internet
Former Harvard University researcher Shawn Achor suggests in his book The Happiness Advantagethat mindless TV searching and Internet surfing can fatigue us—but not in a good way. More than 30 minutes of TV or social media starts to drain us, but that fatigue isn’t the quality type that can help us sleep. In fact, sometimes social media can amp us up and make sleeping difficult. Further, social media in general can cause emotional exhaustion and increase anxiety.
Avoid checking email before bed
Studies show that reading work email before going to bed can amp people up, in turn, making it difficult to go to sleep. This mimics what another related study showed, that organizational hassles have a greater affect among first responders than traumatic stress does.
2) Vitamins and/or Supplements for Mental Health
Food and hydration are essential to our physical and emotional well-being. Healthy foods help our minds, which in turn can help our bodies, and vice versa. Supplements and vitamins can help too. Note: Consult with your physician and be wise before taking supplements.
A few years ago, I brought in a psychologist and trauma specialist to speak to officers at Salt Lake City Police Department. She suggested that because of trauma and the various things that happen to our bodies (e.g., high cortisol from stress), we may have trouble sleeping. She suggested a supplement called Adrenal Health. One of my buddies told me that after 30 days of taking those supplements, his sleep improved drastically. It should be noted that on the label, it says do not take if you have bipolar disorder.
The following supplements can help lessen anxiety, as well as depression and can help with sleep. I’ve been told, but never verified, that regularly taking melatonin to try and sleep isn’t healthy long term because then your body may fail to create it naturally. Subsequently, these options below may provide great alternatives.
Here are the supplements that Dr. Daniel Amen, a double board-certified psychiatrist, recommends for those with PTSD or PTSI (injury):
Most people are magnesium deficient. Magnesium is a laxative so be careful. If you have that side effect, don’t take as much until your body adjusts and gets used to it. Also, do not take magnesium if you have kidney disease. The benefits, however, are quite amazing: better sleep, better concentration, and reduction in anxiety, depression, and even chronic pain.
Saffron can help increase serotonin, the feel-good brain chemical. Several studies have shown it can help with depression and anxiety and even work better than antidepressant medication. Saffron is also high in antioxidants.
GABA is an amino acid and neurotransmitter that helps induce relaxation. Those who are tactically amped up (that’s my way of saying “anxiety” to those who don’t want to admit it) or who feel hypervigilant, often have low levels of both serotonin and GABA.
Think Thanksgiving turkey. Why? Because 5-HTP is a derivative of tryptophan, the chemical in turkey that gives you a feeling of relaxation. 5-HTP can help treat sleep issues, depression and anxiety.
Other sources I’ve found recommend supplements such as relora or ashwaaganda for help with sleep, but I’m sticking with the few mentioned above because of the source, Dr. Amen, and because some of my research had some other negative feedback about other options.
Vitamin B-complex combines all the B vitamins and is good for you. Vitamin B12 and other B vitamins gives you energy. Naturally, taking vitamin B supplements in the morning would be helpful, and it’s better for you than daily coffee or energy drinks (Note: Most energy drinks contain vitamin B and caffeine).
In his book, On Combat, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman that caffeine can help when we need a boost of energy but warned that if we rely on caffeine all the time, we’ll need a lot more to get us going. Additionally, studies show that caffeine intake can exacerbate sleeping issues, lead to daytime fatigue, and increase anxiety and depression. One study out of Ohio State University showed that caffeine more than doubles the levels of epinephrine and cortisol. Thus, caffeine increases stress. In the study, it did not matter whether or not the user drank caffeine sporadically or regularly.
Whether we take in pills, liquids or food, we ought to remember that these can have both temporary and lasting effects upon our bodies and minds.
3) Exercise to Help Mood
Exercise increases endorphins, serotonin, and metabolism. Regular exercise has been proven to reduce stress, ward off anxiety and feelings of depression, boost self-esteem, and improve sleep, not to mention all the physical benefits for your energy, physical wellbeing, and heart.
It does not matter if you engage in aerobic or nonaerobic exercise, just exercising helps our minds and our moods. Studies have shown that exercise is at least as effective in taking antidepressants (SSRIs) and even more effective than SSRIs in preventing depressive states. Yet, exercising is difficult, especially for those who have gotten out of the habit or for those who are feeling depressed. It’s a lot easier to go to the doctor and get pills than to work out, as one therapist observed, “Compliance with an exercise recommendation is dramatically less than that for antidepressant medication”even though studies show medication doesn’t have the same benefits as working out. Furthermore, working out will help with officer safety.
In a landmark case, Parker vs District of Columbia, it was determined that “Due to the officer’s lack of physical fitness, the officer was unable to use less-harmful defense tactics and resorted to using his firearm, causing the suspect to become paraplegic.” In the end, the “The D.C. Metropolitan Police Department was found to be deliberately indifferent.” So, allowing law enforcement officers to work out and get paid while doing it has serious benefits. In that last verdict, the agency lost millions of dollars.
When it comes to health and wellbeing among those who’ve had a career in trauma, like first responders or those who’ve served in the military, yoga has proven to have amazing benefits, in particular hatha yoga. In fact, a study conducted with military veterans with PTSD showed that doing yoga two times a week, helps reduce hyperarousal and allows better sleep.
4) Thinking Right, Positive Psychology, and People
Thinking the right way is crucial to our mental wellbeing and overall success. Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints once observed and advised that “negative speaking so often flows from negative thinking, including negative thinking about ourselves. We see our own faults, we speak—or at least think—critically of ourselves, and before long that is how we see everyone and everything [so]… Speak hopefully. Speak encouragingly, including about yourself. Try not to complain and moan incessantly… Yes, life has its problems, and yes, there are negative things to face, but… no misfortune is so bad that whining about it won’t make it worse.”
In trying times following this advice can be difficult to do, but it’s definitely advice worth heeding.
When thinking becomes habitual or when traumatic situations make it difficult for us to stop ruminating about the negative, we may have better luck getting some evidence-based therapy, such as EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) or trauma-focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). Positive psychology derives from CBT therapy; it has been proven to help individuals and organizations.
While traditional “talk therapy” has not been overly successful, having friends, peer support or other trusted individuals you can talk to is. Harvard University did an 80-year study to discover what made people the happiest. The conclusion: people and relationships. It’s important to stay connected socially. Withdrawing is never healthy.
In short, learning helpful coping and healthy thinking methods is important. Reframing incorrect thought processes helps us avoid emotional pitfalls or lies we may tell ourselves. Often good therapists who understand the policing culture and who use evidence-based practices can help.
Gratitude can increase productivity as well as job and life satisfaction. Gratitude can improve physical health and sleep. Gratitude can increase kindness and connectivity with others all while decreasing anxiety and depression. The leading gratitude expert, Dr. Robert Emmons, of the University of California-Davis, and his colleagues have conducted numerous studies about gratitude. A regular observation and reflection of things we’re grateful for, including a gratitude journal, can eventually change the neuro pathways of our minds so that we can begin to have a more optimistic outlook on life. In short, gratitude and thankfulness can change the way we look at situations and people, which in turn, can enhance the quality of our life.
Dr. Emmons found that writing down three things every day that we’re grateful for—truly grateful for—can help. It would benefit each of us to write a few sentences each day of things that we observed that went well. It’s easy to look for the bad. It’s a little more challenging to look for the good, but with practice, we can begin to discover the good things. Our relationships and our attitudes will improve. Gratitude can decline stress, even with those who are in occupations with chronic stress.
In conclusion, although the law enforcement community will face ongoing challenges, leading some to experience emotional exhaustion, mental fatigue, and a feeling of burn out, there are ways to combat those feelings.
We cannot control what others think or what others do, but we can control our responses to them, no matter how idiotic or cruel they may be.
Be sure to take time for yourself. Get enough rest. Sleep is imperative to mental and physical well-being. Take good things into your body. If you don’t take vitamins or supplements, no problem; eat well. Make regular exercise a habit. Consider the benefits of positive thinking and realize that as much as you want to think positively, sometimes you need some coaching or counseling to help you, especially when it comes to the traumatic stresses law enforcement officers face.
Finally, remember the reason why you initially entered into this profession: to serve and help. Look for the good and be good. Surround yourself with good people and good events as often as you can and be grateful for good things. Adversarial growth is possible, making posttraumatic growth a blessing that can come after much tribulation.
So, hold your head high, get help when you need it, and remember there are a lot more people who appreciate what you do than those who don’t.
Denning, J. (2020). Curbing officer suicide. The Utah Peace Officer 96(2), 22-28.
Officer Safety and Wellness Group. (2016). Improving law enforcement resilience: Lessons and recommendations. vii. https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-p362-pub.pdf
Amen, D. (2020). The End of Mental Illness: How neuroscience is transforming psychiatry and helping prevent or reverse mood and anxiety disorders, ADHD, addictions, PTSD, psychosis, personality disorders and more. Tyndale
Pollock, K. M. (2001). Exercise in treating depression: Broadening the psychotherapist’s role. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 57(11), 1290.
Quigley, A. (2008). Fit for Duty? The Need for Physical Fitness Programs for Law Enforcement Officers. The Police Chief, 75(6).
Holland J. R. (2007, May). The tongue of angels. Ensign, pp. 17-18.
Cheng, T., & Lam (2015). Improving mental health in health care practitioners: randomized controlled trial of a gratitude intervention. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 83(1), 177-186.