Help Clients Create Harmony with This Mindfulness Intervention

Free infographic from Tactical Brain Training

Gina Rollo White, MA

My mother was the emergency room head nurse for Saint Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, California, one of very few trauma units in Los Angeles. Every day, she worked with people who were on the verge of death or had endured extreme trauma or violence. My father was a firefighter and paramedic for the Los Angeles County Fire Department. He was on scene for motorcycle accidents, assaults, gang violence, burning homes with victims trapped inside—all sorts of horrendous traumas.

I idolized my parents. They held life in their hands every day, their collective knowledge was immense, and they approached most things with a ready-to-go attitude. Watching them interact with the world was like watching superheroes in action. We would stop at every accident to offer medical help and pull over for anyone who looked distressed, from a child left unattended to an elderly person who seemed lost or disoriented.

Still, my family’s hypervigilant way of life had its drawbacks. We always felt protected, yet at the same time, we were always on alert, scanning for disasters, assessing situations. If my dad said “jump,” we jumped; if he said “duck,” we were under the table in seconds. We lived with one foot on the gas and the other on the brake.

Of course, constantly running at top speed inevitably results, sooner or later, in a crashing halt. I came to identify this point as the “other side.” It was what happened in our home at the end of the day, behind closed doors, when the carousel of emergencies finally wound down enough for our thoughts and feelings to settle in. On the “other side,” Mom became sad, and Dad became violent. Something trivial would happen—we kids were late coming home, dinner accidentally burned on the stove—and Mom would end up in the bedroom with the door closed, faint sobs drifting under the door and down the hallway to our bedrooms. Someone would cut my dad off while driving, or my siblings and I would get into a physical fight, and Dad’s rage would blow in like a violent storm, throwing things, flipping couches, punching holes in the wall. We never really understood what was going on; we just accepted it as our “normal” and learned that to survive the “other side,” we needed to take cover.

As an adult who now works directly with first responders (law enforcement, active military, emergency services providers, etc.), I’ve come to understand that the “other side” is a self-perpetuating problem. Even in the handful of organizations and departments where mental health resources are available, these services are often underutilized; many first responders sense that asking for mental health support is perceived by others as an admission of mental instability. And that’s just the ones who recognize they could use some help; a lot of first responders don’t even see the need. I frequently hear confessions of problematic reactions or unhealthy behavior followed up with rationalizations like “It’s no big deal, as long as I don’t let it get in the way of doing my job.”

Of course, this type of rationalization and resistance isn’t limited to first responders. Our modern culture is saturated with the idea that living with stress is okay, normal, or inevitable. The “why” behind this state of affairs can be boiled down to one word: habituation.

When a person lives in constant chaos, feelings of intense frustration, anxiety, or burnout become normal, even comfortable. We become desensitized to signals from our mind and body that they are overextending themselves. As a result, we rarely sense a need for mental health support until we reach a breaking point: an unintended explosion of anger, a seasonal illness that turns chronic, a realization that we can’t remember our last full night of sleep, a hyperdefensive attitude toward mundane feedback. The situation is further complicated by the fact that for many of us, even the word “wellness” itself can be triggering, implying that we are sick or somehow broken.

All these implications are so far from the truth! It takes a rare and special kind of strength, stamina, and critical thinking to focus when the world is falling apart around you, to sustain great pain and suffering in the mission to care for others. But constantly scanning for potential emergencies keeps your attention focused on the external, rather than the internal. To shift the idea that wellness is only for someone in imminent danger of breaking down, or that needing mental health support is a sign of weakness, I turned to a concept that helps create harmony between learning to identify the suffering caused by stress and applying a proactive strategy to process and regulate emotions, all while taking stigma out of the equation. You’ve probably heard of it: mindfulness.

There are a broad range of definitions for mindfulness, but the one I resonate most with comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Full Catastrophe Living: “I define mindfulness…as the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

This is a definition that resonates deeply with first responders and other “suck it up/save the world” types. Far from being some woo-woo spiritual technique, mindfulness simply means training the brain to think strategically about what we’re feeling and how to handle it. Rather than blowing up, we can notice our system is going haywire, process the information provided by our emotions and thoughts, and connect that information to a plan of action. This helps calm the nervous system, the control center for mind-body integration, by creating self-understanding and fostering a sense of agency (i.e., taking an action on purpose). For example, if you notice that you are angry, just asking yourself Why am I so pissed off right now? will calm your nervous system, giving you space to then ask What can I do to decrease my anger? This second question enables self-control, which helps you effectively manage your own behavior and, by extension, the situation. No matter what the feeling is—stress, trauma, sadness, anger—mindfulness meets you where you are, wherever you are, and creates a safe space to land by giving you conscious control over how you relate to yourself and others.

Mindfulness Intervention: Anchoring

This practice helps lay the foundation of the mindfulness interventions. It trains the brain to pay attention, making a connection between a wandering mind and bringing thoughts back to a specific action, such as counting breaths or feeling a sensation. It can help you recognize moments when you lose concentration and how to focus your attention on a chosen task.

How to Practice

Set a timer for practicing or do what feels comfortable for you.
  1. Find a seated position. Sit in a way that is comfortable but not too relaxed. You should have a feeling of sitting upright but not “uptight.” Allow your eyes to close or keep them open and focused on a single point.
  2. Notice your breath. Bring your attention to how you are breathing. There is no right or wrong way to breathe; just let it happen naturally. Notice as your belly or chest rises and falls.
  3. Bring to mind an anchor. Imagine a boat anchored in water. Then envision how the anchor works, keeping the boat steady. Now imagine the boat begins to drift and the anchor line catches when the slack is out, keeping the boat from wandering.
  4. Choose an anchor for yourself. Your anchor can be anything you choose: a sound, a sensation, a thought. For this exercise, we will use the rhythm of your breath as an anchor.
  5. Stabilize your thoughts. Begin by focusing your attention on breathing. Notice the rise and fall of your chest or belly. When you detect that your mind is having thoughts, return your attention to the rhythm of that rise and fall—it’s the anchor that pulls you back to focusing on your breath.
  6. Refocus your attention on your anchor. Thoughts will come and go. When you catch your mind in a thought, remember your breath is your anchor. Try not to get caught up in judging or interpreting your thoughts. Simply notice your mind has wandered and anchor your thoughts once again on the rise and fall of your breath. The idea is to notice that your mind has wandered, then simply guide it back.
  7. Repeat this process. Practice for the duration of the time you’ve set on your timer, or for as long as it feels good to you.
Download this free printable infographic straight from Tactical Brain Training: A Guide to Trauma and Stress Management for First Responders and the Professionals Who Support Them to help you and your clients create a mindfulness foundation for greater harmony.

Tactical Brain Training: A Guide to Trauma and Stress Management for First Responders and the Professionals Who Support Them
First responders – law enforcement, firefighters, emergency medical professionals, military personnel, and more – spend each day confronting stress and trauma head-on. Rarely is there time to process and recover from the turmoil and violence they encounter day after day. It doesn’t help that first responder culture encourages a “get on with it” attitude, offering limited resources for the internal struggle that builds up over time.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Tactical Brain Training offers a solution for first responders to use their incredible emergency management skills to recover from the rigors of this demanding work. Developed by Gina Rollo White, a therapeutic mindfulness expert with over 10 years in the first responder world, this first-of-its-kind guidebook provides proven, sustainable strategies for regulating stress and trauma in real time and following the emergent event.
Online Course:
Veteran and Military Mental Health Certification Course
An understanding of military culture is essential to helping military and veteran clients navigate their unique experiences of trauma, anger, grief, and relationship difficulties. This all-new certification course will give you in-depth strategies and interventions you need to be prepared to help your clients meet the challenges they face.
Meet the Expert:
Gina Rollo White, MA, is the founder of Mindful Junkie and is broadly recognized as a leading therapeutic mindfulness expert and instructor for first responders and veterans, teaching stress and trauma management using mindfulness interventions. She provides in-agency and in-department workshops across the US using the curriculum she developed. Tactical Brain Training®, Mindfulness for First Responders. She is also a speaker at major first responder conferences across the country, such as International Association of Chiefs of Police, COG Fire Health and Safety Symposium, Southwest Women in Law Enforcement, and Washington DC, Grand Rounds. She lives in the Washington DC, area.

Learn more about her educational products, including upcoming live seminars, by clicking here.

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