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Police Officers: In Search of Coherence and Resilience

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Police Officers: In Search of Coherence and Resilience

Editor’s note: Police departments nationwide and abroad face closer scrutiny in the wake of highly publicized officer-involved shootings. This article looks at efforts to study the effects of and implement coherence and resilience training designed to lower stress levels among police officers and improve our communities.

We often hear about the anxious, fearful and angry reactions of people to violent and tragic events, whether it is in their own communities or distant places. This has been especially evident in the last few years as large groups of people have turned their anger, fear and grief on law enforcement in response to police officer-involved shootings.

While it is almost certain the public’s outcry will always be widely reported in the media, it is far less likely the intense stress and anxiety police officers experience during and after these and other highly volatile incidents will gain the public’s attention.

Nevertheless, year after year, ranking near the top of the nation’s most stressful jobs is that of police officers. (It should be noted other first responders also rank high on such surveys, particularly firefighters, and not far behind are emergency dispatchers and emergency medical technicians.)

Because of the high stress levels experienced by officers and in response to publicity over officer-involved shootings, many law enforcement agencies nationally and internationally have sought out interventions for combatting police officer stress. That includes specialized training in collaboration with private organizations.

HeartMath Institute (HMI) in particular stands out as one organization that has worked a great deal and partnered with numerous police agencies and training organizations, such as Blue Courage, in the last several years. HeartMath’s efforts have been aimed at reducing stress and improving personal and professional resilience and performance through resilience, coherence and self-regulation training.

Coherence and resilience training studies

Among recent studies to determine the effectiveness of coherence, resilience and emotion self-regulation training for police officers is one conducted by HMI that took place over 16 weeks. The study, published in a 2012 issue of the Global Advances in Health and Medicine journal, started out with 64 sworn police officers at seven Santa Clara County, California police agencies. (Eventually, 59 of the original participants, who included one nonpolice municipal official, had remained through the end of the study.)

“Research suggests that police work is among the most stressful occupations in the world and officers typically suffer a variety of physiological, psychological, and behavioral effects and symptoms,” the researchers noted in the study’s abstract. “Officers operating under severe or chronic stress are likely to be at greater risk of error, accidents, and overreactions that can compromise their performance, jeopardize public safety, and pose significant liability costs to the organization.”

The police officers in this study went through HeartMath’s Coherence Advantage (Now called The Resilience Advantage®) stress-resilience and performance-enhancement training. The coherence training, also referred to as cardiac coherence training, entailed learning and practicing energy self-regulation techniques aimed at helping officers take charge of the mental, emotional and physical systems, thereby building their resilience capacity, which improves job performance and effectiveness.

Participants were tasked with practicing these techniques to show they could utilize and recoup their energy more intelligently and effectively shift into physiological coherence. This is an optimal state in which the body’s mental, emotional and physical systems function harmoniously.

The police officers used HeartMath’s emWave technology to enhance and monitor their coherence practices.

Twelve of the officers participated in the “scenarios” portion of the study. These were simulations that included responding to a domestic violence call, going on a high-speed chase and conducting a building search. The officers first would go through a portion of their training, and then participate in a scenario. Physiological and psychological measurements taken before their training were compared with measurements taken after they participated in the scenarios.

What the researchers found was: “Officers who practiced the self-regulation skills experienced marked reductions in negative emotions, fatigue, and physical stress symptoms as well as increased peacefulness, physical vitality, and improved work performance.

“The greatest and, in our view, most important effect of the self-management training was seen in the participants’ increased ability to manage their moods and emotions, which is a fundamental key to sustaining resilience. … For the police officer, the abilities to think rationally under stress, concentrate, plan ahead, remember and organize crucial information, make effective decisions, and control inappropriate emotion-triggered reactions are critically important and in some cases, can determine the difference between life and death for the officer and other parties.”

A recent independent study at Police University College of Finland, examined the potential benefits of providing resilience training to SWAT team personnel. Key training methods in the study, Applying Resilience Promotion Training Among Special Forces Police Officers, included HeartMath coherence-building techniques, notably the Heart-Focused Breathing Technique combined with focusing on positive emotions. (It is noteworthy that the interventions used with the SWAT personnel, including HeartMath’s, were developed for regular police officers because none had been developed specifically for SWAT teams.)

The SWAT personnel would go through a 60-minute resilience training session and then imagine themselves engaged in a specific highly stressful incident. One of these was a hostage situation. They had to decide what actions they would take in the incident.

“The purpose of listening and imagining oneself in a critical incident while in a controlled, nonstressful environment,” according to the published study, “is to instill confidence and familiarity into the police officer so that when they encounter such a stressor in the line of duty the incident is more predictable, controllable, and thus less threatening.”

Key benefits of Resilience Advantage training

  • Increased awareness and self-management of stress reactions
  • Reduced distress, anger, sadness, and fatigue
  • Reduced sleeplessness and physical stress symptoms
  • Increased peacefulness and vitality
  • Reduced competition, improved communication, and greater cooperation within work teams
  • Improved work performance
  • Greater confidence, balance, and clarity under acute stress
  • Quicker recalibration following acute stress
  • Improved listening and relationships with family
  • HeartMath partners with police in Netherlands

    Since 2012, 300 to 400 police officers per week in the Netherlands have received cardiac coherence training through the HeartMath Benelux program. It has been estimated that by sometime in 2016, 30,000 of the Netherlands’s police officers will have received this training through HeartMath. HeartMath Benelux is an official partner of the Dutch Police Academy.

    Click to view related reseach papers, articles and videos.