Boiling point


Dealing with the public is never an easy task; when you are a garda, further challenges can arise writes Karl Melvin.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 17.07.47When dealing with the public it is imperative to remain calm and objective despite the overwhelming emotion that might be projected onto you as a garda. Exposure to intense levels of stress, psychological trauma, substance overload and/or societal pressures, is an every day occurrence for those charged with the upkeep of justice and it’s essential to learn how to manage and navigate around these situations.

Before managing the emotions of others, we first need to learn how to physically ground ourselves. This starts with our feet which represents not only our connection to the earth but how we manoeuvre around life’s many challenges. There are three clear contact points on each foot; the heel, the ball behind the big toe and ball behind the little toe. Stand up and notice the weight distribution on each of these three areas.

• Are you heel heavy, i.e. do you dig your heels into the ground? This could represent a need to constantly stand your ground, possibly the result of conflict during childhood or adolescence. It might also represent inflexibility and a need to control, and could result in lower back pain due to the stress on the calves, hamstrings and upwards.

• Are you flat footed, i.e. do you have no obvious contact points? No contact points, means there is no grounding and you can be easily shifted both physically and psychologically.

• Are you always on the balls of your feet, i.e. heel elevated and bouncing on the front of the foot? Traditionally associated with people with high levels of energy or anxiety, these people always seem to be in the rush and are ready to take off at any point. Learning to slow down and making more informed decisions is important here.

Once you become aware of your feet, slowly adjust your weight distribution so it is evenly balanced on the three points and then slightly bend your knees. This process of anchoring must be practised constantly, every time you walk, run, sit or stand. Eventually it will help connect your mind to your body, raising awareness to what is happening inside (as well as posture, breathing, heartbeat, muscle tension, etc.) and assist in controlling your unconscious reactions to emotional stimulus. This may also enable you to remain calm, stay present and diffuse tension when faced with confrontation.

Although incredibly hard, it’s important to depersonalise every remark, disagreement or aggressive action from career criminals to concerned citizens. Detachment is a shift in outlook and deciding the situation has nothing to do with you personally. Detachment is having a professional concern for others without making an emotional connection to the behaviour or attitude of any one person/people. Detachment involves knowing your own limits, taking the necessary action and then letting go of what has happened and moving on.

Knowledge is also essential here, as you inform yourself of the many developmental and educational challenges people face today especially in disadvantaged areas where unemployment and addiction are key factors.

Some people have a natural ability to detach whereas others learn it over the course of life. Either way, it is an important skill to avoid burnout and protect your mental and physical health.

When in the throes of psychological distress, the emotional layers of the brain (referred to as the limbic region) can often override the rational problem solving brain processes (referred to as the neocortex region). This is primal in nature and the individual is not necessarily choosing their words or actions in these situations.

Screen Shot 2016-05-27 at 17.09.33To help calm a person down, it is important to help activate the rational brain. To do this, ask very basic and simple questions e.g. what they had for lunch, what their job is, what the time is, what their plans are tomorrow, etc. This not only helps to distract from the emotion but encourages them to focus on facts. This technique can be particularly useful when dealing with people with irrational fears, such as phobias of planes or lifts.

Making eye contact and passively bringing attention to the present by giving them small tasks, such as writing an account of a situation also aids in activating the neocortex and easing anxiety.

Understand your own triggers
We are all unique individuals with our own life experience and memories and so our stressors are unique as well.

Some stressors are social such as environmental factors, educational challenges, family scenarios, etc. Some are biological such as physical illness, lifestyle choices, genetic inheritance, brain chemistry, etc. Some are psychological such as past traumatic experiences, negative beliefs or attitudes and the associated unhealthy behaviours.

Irrespective of the role you play, if you are in the helping profession stress is a reality; you need to get to the root of your own stress and work to resolve it completely. This starts with honestly reflecting on your life up to this point and how it is impacting on the present.

If social factors are a problem, for example if you are working in an environment where you have had negative experiences in the past, share this with your superiors who should be able to provide support and guidance.

Physical health is essential yet many do not prioritise it. This is particularly true when stress is a regular part of your life and the stress hormone cortisol is released in excessive amounts into your body, affecting your energy levels and overall mood. If you find you are constantly tired or if there is a history of medical issues in your family go to your doctor and get a full medical check-up. Be one hundred percent open and honest with the doctor. Also pay attention to your gut and how it impacts your mood. If you find you have regular digestive issues, get this checked as you may have intolerances or might simply not be absorbing the nutrients from foods.

Psychological stressors are particularly tough to resolve as they are often deep rooted; will power and awareness are key to catching them and making new choices. If you find anxiety rising inside don’t battle the feeling, instead ask yourself where does it come from and does it have any relevance to now. Over time, you will become so familiar with the anxiety that it will have no bearing on your present actions and pass a lot quicker. If you find you are prone to seeing the negative in everything, cognitive reframing is essential to maintain an optimistic outlook and drive positive behaviours. Visualisation has been used by top athletes and performers to tap into the desired outcome of any endeavour but it is just as relevant in day to day living. Put aside 10 minutes every day in private to visualise how you want your career, your health or any other aspect of your life to turn out. This will help to map new brain paths and promote a healthier and more relaxed state of mind.

No one in society would doubt the stressful nature of being a police officer, especially with daily exposure to varying degrees of emotionally charged problems. To survive this, it’s essential you apply your professionalism to your own health and stress levels, through separating yourself from the job, acknowledging your own emotional triggers and learning the best way for you to remain calm and relaxed despite what’s happening around you. Making this a regular habit will not only make you a more effective and positive role model but will enhance every other aspect of your life out of uniform. 

Karl Melvin is a Psychotherapist based in Aspen Counselling in Lucan, Dublin. He regularly publishes mental health articles on the website

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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