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What a Police Ride-Along Taught Me About Mental Toughness

Four mindset shifts that reduce stress and worry, build mental resilience, and help you perform better.

What a Police Ride-Along Taught Me About Mental Toughness

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Several months ago, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department asked me to speak to their officers.

Before I talk to any group, I try to get a handle on what their jobs and lives are like.

So I rode along with an officer for the Las Vegas Metro Police named Shane. I also hung around the South Central Area Command station to speak with other officers.

I realized that one ride-along wouldn’t give me perfect insight into the job.

But it was something—I got a peek at what the job is like. I asked Shane and other officers a lot of questions about the work, its stresses, and more. I plan to do more ride-alongs with Metro in the future.

What I learned on my ride-along doesn’t just apply to law enforcement.

It applies to anyone, to some degree, living and working today. All jobs and decisions are stressful and consequential! Some more so than others.

Today we’re covering:

  • Why modern jobs (and lives) lead to stress and overthinking.
  • How jobs have changed since pre-history and what that means for stress, anxiety, rumination, and more.
  • Why our brain loves to play the “but what if …” game.
  • Four mindset shifts that will reduce stress, build resilience, and help you perform better.

The rumination problem

In short

The hardest part of the job, many Las Vegas Metro police officers told me, is constantly wondering if they did the right thing. This is an issue many careers face.

The details

Shane and I were cruising down South Maryland street—let’s just say it’s a “hot” area—when I asked him, “What’s the hardest part of the job?”

Being naive, I expected him to say something I might see in a cop action movie.

Instead, Shane said it was “shutting off his brain” after a shift. And he wasn’t the only one who told me that.

All the officers I spoke to told me some version of “constant rumination.”

Sound familiar? The NIH says about a third of Americans will face a clinical anxiety issue in their life at some point.

But let’s be honest: We all worry to some degree. And work is a major source of our worry.

Why we all ruminate

In short

Life and work are far more complex, ambiguous, and uncertain than in the past. This gives us more to worry and stress about.

The details

In the prehistoric past, humans basically had three jobs:

  1. Have kids and keep them alive.
  2. Find food.
  3. Don’t die.

We generally did these jobs together as a tribe. And it was always rather clear if we’d done our job well—for example, we either found food or didn’t.

Today, life is much safer, better, and more comfortable. But it’s also far more complex.

Modern jobs are filled with specialized skills, tasks, rules, ways of thinking, and much more. Most jobs are new in the grand scheme of time and space.

For example, any job involving writing or numbers is only, at most, 10,000 years old—writing was invented then, and numbers followed 5,000 years afterward.

Our new jobs are great, but their outcomes aren’t as clear. It’s harder to know whether or not we did the right thing.

This is especially true for law enforcement officers.

Ancient versus modern law enforcement: A thought experiment

Consider what it was probably like defending our community in pre-history. Let’s say a couple of strangers approached your tribe with spears and acted threatening. It made sense to simply neutralize the threat.

Afterward, you’d move on and probably not think too much about it again. Questions of whether you did the right or wrong thing were somewhat moot—the outcome was clear and the the goal was to survive.

Thanks to progress, we now have a litany of laws. And I mean a litany—for example, there are 722 chapters in the Nevada Revised Statutes, basically the “law book” for the state.

The role of officers is to enforce those laws and keep society safe from people who break them. Thankfully, we also have laws to protect the lawbreakers.

“Bad actors” move through a justice system that is imperfect but rather good in the grand scheme of time and space. This ensures everyone gets a close-to-fair shake.

All the police I spoke to, of course, like our justice system.

But all our laws make officers’ jobs extremely complex, often ambiguous, and incredibly stressful.

To understand this, let’s pretend a modern Las Vegas Metro Police officer is patrolling Fremont Street in Las Vegas. For those who don’t know, it’s a sort of “party street” between the casinos of Old Vegas.

Now pretend a strange person walks out into the crowd—and he’s holding a spear. The officer now has to run a hundred questions through her mind:

  • What laws might this person be breaking?
  • What do Nevada laws say about carrying a spear in public? Is it legal to publicly carry a spear? For example, it’s legal for anyone to openly carry a gun in many states.
  • Is the person holding the spear in a threatening way? Or is he, say, a street entertainer who’s planning to do some weird spear routine for money?
  • Is the person posing a risk to himself or others?
  • What should the officer do? Should she talk to the guy? Confiscate the spear? Draw her weapon?

She has to decide in seconds.

Once she decides what she’ll do, a million complexities insert themselves. The outcome and whether she did the right or wrong thing is somewhat ambiguous. For example:

  • What if she lets the person go, but he later uses the spear to hurt someone? She’s on the hook.
  • What if she thinks our spear guy does pose a threat and she has to forcefully arrest him—but it then turns out that it’s actually legal to publicly carry a spear?
  • Or what if spears aren’t legal, but the man fights back, and someone captures video of the arrest and puts it online? How will the man’s lawyers use the video?
  • If she arrests him, did she select the right laws to cite? If she didn’t, that opens her up to problems.
  • Did she generally do the right thing? That is, the thing that protects the public but also the man with the spear’s rights?

The decisions the officer makes—all in a split second with some probability of grave consequences—can impact everyone’s safety in the moment but also her life months down the road.

She might get pulled into a superior’s office weeks later because our spear guy filed a complaint. He might even sue her.

You can see where I’m going with this. Police officers can never know if what they did was perfect. Every single decision can come back and bite them on the butt.

And, again: All of those decisions must be made in seconds and can be life or death. Police officers make decisions like this every single shift.

And that weighs on the officers, they all told me. They’re constantly ruminating over whether they did the right or wrong thing.

But officers aren’t alone in this.

We all focus on the “what if?”

In Short

Humans have what’s called a “negativity bias.” We focus on and obsess over potential negative outcomes—and it can drive us crazy.

The details

The decisions you make daily probably aren’t life or death. But they probably are complex, ambiguous, and uncertain. Jobs and life are hard—and vague.

We all wonder if we did the right or wrong thing.

Research shows humans evolved to focus on potentially negative and ambiguous info up to four times more than positive clear info.

Our brain is “wired” to obsess over the negatives because that “negativity bias” used to keep us alive. A sweeping review of negativity bias explained:

The negativity bias is thought to serve the evolutionarily adaptive purpose of helping us safely explore the environment while appropriately avoiding harmful situations.

This is why it’s hard to shut off your brain anytime you think you may have done the wrong thing or believe something bad may happen.

So how do you manage it?

Four ways to manage work and life stress (and even turn it into a positive)

In short

To reduce work stress, commiserate with your colleagues, actively focus on positives, tell yourself a positive story, and put the worst-case scenario in perspective.

The details

Shifting your mindset around your work can be a powerful way to reduce stress and live a better life.

Research shows these methods effectively reduce job stress and improve quality of life.

1. Find a tribe

Shane told me that once he’s home, no one really wants to talk to him about the job.

Friends and family members often ask him questions—but they all tune out when Shane starts talking about the realities of the job and what he did and saw that day. He gets it—the job can be depressing to hear about.

He then told me, “Only other cops really get it and can talk about it.”

That’s a good solution for police and anyone else with a stressful career: Commiserate with people you’re in the trenches with.

It’s helpful to talk about your problems with people who face the same problems.

Consider 12-step programs. Alcoholics Anonymous started when an alcoholic realized that all the psychotherapy, medical treatment, and venting to friends and family wasn’t as powerful as one ex-problem drinker telling his story of recovery to a current alcoholic.

Related: People who work from home are 64% more likely to say they’re stressed compared to people who work on-site.

I often wonder if changes in our ability to commiserate with co-workers is partly to blame for the rise in work stress. Working from home has made it harder to have conversations in the lunch room or after a meeting to vent about the job.

2. Focus on the positives

Your brain is wired to focus on the negatives. That kept humans alive in the past.

But today, it can make us miserable and lead us to miss how great life is.

This is especially true when your job doesn’t deal in life or death, like the jobs of police, firefighters, soldiers, doctors, nurses, EMTs, and other first responders.

If you’re struggling with rumination, no matter your job, end each day by writing down three good things that happened.

Quickly jot down what happened, why it was good, and how that made you feel.

P.S., The point isn’t to bandaid bad thoughts with good ones. But agonizing doesn’t help. Pair this practice with actively building systems to reduce the odds the same problem will happen again.

3. Tell yourself another story

This is similar to the above. But instead of finding positives that are unrelated to what you’re worried about, you flip the script.

In it, you look at the situation you’re worried about. Then you think of other ways it could be interpreted—especially positive ways.

This is a branch of psychology called “cognitive bias modification” (CBM). Researchers explain that it, “(trains) information processing away from a negative cognitive bias to a more positive bias, whether in attention or interpretation of ambiguous situations.”

The truth is that we really have no idea how things are going to turn out.

An infinite number of future events could occur and alter outcomes. Oftentimes, events we think are bad turn out positive.

But our brains pick one bad possible outcome we’ve concocted and obsess on it.

So CBM asks us to consider many possible good outcomes and ways of interpreting an event.

Multiple studies have found that it “reduced worry and rumination and depressive symptoms.”

4. Frame the consequences

The consequences of something going wrong during a police shift can be grave. The same goes for doctors, nurses, firefighters, EMTs, soldiers, and other first responders.

But this isn’t the case for most jobs.

Remember that if we failed in our ancient jobs—like finding food—we would starve and die.

But today, failing at aspects of many jobs usually means your boss gets annoyed with you. Then you move on.

So keep that in mind! It’s like that scene in the Hangover II. But did you die?

The point isn’t to resign yourself to full acceptance. You should still try to fix a problem and improve your work.

But you’ll never be perfect. And it’s important to remember that imperfection in most jobs today won’t kill you—you’ll still have a home, family, and more to come home to.

Have fun, don’t die—but did you die?


P.S. Giant thanks to Heather Hatfield, a 2% reader and police officer in Baltimore, for giving feedback on an early draft of this piece.

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