One of the many reasons that it took until the mid 1970s for women to be accepted into the ranks of street police officers was the fallacy that women didn't deal well with violence or pain. Any woman who has given birth will certainly argue that one with you all day long, but there is scientific evidence that the female brain is hard-wired to avoid conflict. Does this mean women are afraid? Not on your life! It does mean, however, that women tend to work harder at gaining consensus, especially in high stress situations. Dr. Louanne Brizendine talks about this in her best selling book The Female Brain. Conflict avoidance is a female trait that actually works to a woman's advantage when it comes to certain aspects of police work. It's no secret that many female officers seem to have the touch when it comes to talking someone into handcuffs. However, women also tend to be worriers, and this can manifest itself as a problem in both our personal and professional lives.
Worrying is nothing more than negative visualization. Visualization is one of the ways we prepare our brain and ultimately our body, to win, so if we worry about bad things happening, we're training ourselves to lose. For example, if it's time to qualify at the range but shooting isn't one of your strengths, you probably start worrying: What if my score isn't high enough? What if the guys make fun of me? What if that jerk-of-a-rangemaster decides to use me as an example of 'how not to do it' again... All that worrying is only going to train your brain to fail, and chances are you're setting yourself up to have a bad day at the range. How do we avoid worry, face our fears, and learn to thrive in law enforcement, both professionally and personally?
Everyone experiences stress. There's eustress, the good stress and stimulation we all need, and then there's distress, or bad stress, which can be emotionally and physically destructive. Your brain determines which stimulus is positive and which is negative, which includes worry and fear. To overcome this, we need to take from the amygdala (the brain's pre-consciousness center for things like anger, aggression and affection) and the lower order brain which triggers our fear responses and autonomic reactions and actively cope by moving to our higher order brain where we can deal with it rationally and take the emotional trigger away. In his outstanding book The Survivor's Club, Ben Sherwood calls this Hugging the Monster, a phrase he borrowed from the United States Air Force. Hugging the monster, or facing our fears head on, allows us to reason, and develop an appropriate coping response.
Sherwood goes on to specify what happens if we let our fears run wild. Neuroscientists say that when our fear alarms are activated, neurochemicals are released that can wreak havoc on clear-headed thinking and good decision-making. The Air Force calls this analysis paralysis. What to do? We must grab hold of our fears, wrestle with them, and turn them into motivation. In fact, the more you grapple with your fears, the more familiar they become to you and soon, those fears will become your allies and help you survive and thrive. Scientific studies also show that when animals and people are allowed to respond actively, rather than passively, to critical stress (such as pain, extreme fear, or imminent danger) alternative brain pathways are utilized and a passive fear response is replaced with an active coping strategy.
You also need to know yourself and how you respond under stress or in a crisis. As cops, we often thrive in a critical incident on the street, and then crumble internally when our lieutenant yells at us or we don't do well on a promotional exam. As Dr. Kevin Gilmartin talks about in Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, it's usually administrative stress (IE: the B.S. in the station) that causes cops the most problems. Don't allow yourself to become mired in negativity. Understand what you control and what you don't. You can't control how your lieutenant treats you, but you can control your own reaction. You don't control the promotional process, but you can control how you prepare for the process as well how you react to the outcome. We often blame the department, our bosses, and our co-workers for our stress, when in reality, we're the ones in control. We just have to decide to be an optimist rather than a victim, you gotta hug that monster!
I know this all seems rather dry and academic, but understand what you're doing when you make the conscious decision to face those fears, whatever they may be. You're bringing what you fear out of your emotional center and putting it in its proper place, up to your rational, analytical mind. This allows you to engage in active coping, to analyze your stressors, dissect them, and then defeat them, piece by rational piece.
Women are still relatively new to mainstream law enforcement, and sometimes it seems as though we have so much to worry about, whether it's tactical, administrative, or personal. Don't let negative visualization set you up for failure. Know your strengths and learn to take advantage of them, and when you encounter something that seems to create a fear response, look it right in the eye and say come on, gimme a hug!