As a field, law enforcement loves its terminology. The idea of protection particularly as the love child of military operations colors a lot of our concepts. We take our gear and our maneuvers and name other things after them. For example, think of all the ways the word bulletproof has been used. On the light hearted side you have Bulletproof Coffee and the Bulletproof Diet. From Lt. Col. Dave Grossman you have the concept of the Bulletproof Mind. This I believe has lead to the word Bulletproof being defined as “the state of high performance.” Then we move into my personal favorite word-Tactical. We have all kinds of actual tactical goods and accessories. Tactical Headsets come from the concept of Tactical Communication. You even have Tactical Seatbelt use being taught in academies. On the management level, you can learn Tactical Leadership. It was with an understanding that we love our operational words that I first heard the concept of psychological Teflon.
Much research has been done around resiliency and many people believe this is something a person is born with. They believe it’s neurobiological and is why some people weather the stress of life much better than others. What scientists have found is our brains have amazing neuro-plasticity and we can actually increase our resiliency throughout our lives. This concept is being described as building our psychological teflon. An article in Forbes outlined five ways to knit together our bulletproof barrier. These five ways are particularly appropriate to the unique experiences 911 Dispatchers face.
Elevate your perspective
“There is a distinct difference between having big problems and making your problems big,” writes Margie Warrell in the article. It is not events that cause stress. This applies to both eustress (the good stuff) and distress (the bad stuff). It is our reaction to the event that causes our physiological response. Allowing ourselves a broader, bigger perspective of the event can help keep it at a “this is a hurdle” versus “this is the worst thing ever” level. Take for example a new policy is put into place that makes you immediately think it will make your job harder and be ineffective. Instead of turning into a thought war, look through a wider lens, implement the policy and document how it works. Evidence often shows when management, often way up the food chain, makes decisions they don’t know the actual outcome. With a broader view and good documentation you can make your case clearly and calmly. You also won’t take it so personally due to building up your psychological teflon.
Don’t let your situation define you, Accept reality; don’t fight it and Focus on what’s within your control
These three ways of building resilience are all interconnected in our world. We deal with a lot of traumatic stuff. We often have negative consequences for being intimately involved in other people’s tragedies. Studies are coming out that show posttraumatic stress is a very real issue in 911 Dispatch. Building our psychological teflon will help mitigate this. By increasing outside activities away from the trauma, such as gardening, journaling, being out in nature, exercising, making art, whatever helps re-fill your cup, you build up your resilience. In this way, you can do something healthy which helps you separate from the trauma you experience each day. Along with this, knowing that you did the best you could with the resources you had available will help you focus on what you can control and what you cannot control. This is particularly important to remember when something bad happens to one of our field responders. We feel so much personal responsibility. We rack our brains trying to figure out what we could have done differently, better. Often there is nothing. Nothing at all. A bad situation happened with other people involved. We can’t control the situation or the other people. We’re able to psychologically deal with the tragedies that happen in our world when we know we did our best. We might hold the reins but we don’t determine if a giant chasm is going to open up under their feet.
Don’t go it alone
This one is so important. It cannot be overstated in our work. We don’t suffer in isolation. We are all being affected by the work we do so we should do our healing together too. This happens all the time. You hear it in the stories 911 Dispatchers tell about how they only feel heard and understood by others in the field. Or, how a co-worker found them in the bathroom or on the back patio staring aimlessly out at the sky after a bad call and just sat beside them. They didn’t even have to say anything at all. They just knew and we are able to process the trauma without being alone. Sometimes a really big thing happens or the constant one-two punch of tragedy after tragedy cumulates. It’s important to seek outside help. This can be through peer support, if your agency has it, EAP or a hotline designated for first responders. However you seek it, just seek it. Other people, both personal and professional help us build our psychological teflon.
Resiliency is not just nature; it can be nurture as well. We can become more tactically sound if we do a few things to build up not only our bulletproof minds but our bulletproof hearts as well.