By Dr. Dale G. Caldwell
The Detroit police officer cautiously approached the driver’s side door of the car he pulled over for speeding. The tinted windows prevented the officer from seeing inside the car. He therefore was on edge as the driver slowly opened the window. Too often people think what happens next is determined exclusively by the actions of the driver and the training of the police officer. However, the interaction is frequently guided by the past traumatic influences of both the driver and the police officer.
Unfortunately, because of the prevalence of crime and violence in urban communities, too many residents and police officers are suffering from a form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that is ongoing and unique to cities. I call this Urban Traumatic Stress Disorder (UTSD) because it is not “post” since it relates to the continuous daily stress of urban living. The residents and police officers experience a change in their amygdala (the region of the brain that controls emotional reactions) because of frequent exposure to violence, loud noises and other elements of urban living. This change in the brain has nothing to do with how intelligent someone is, but it can lead to an emotional reaction to challenging situations that can result in confrontation, injuries or even death.
This same traffic stop can potentially turn violent if the driver and the police officer are suffering from UTSD. The stress level for police and residents in urban communities is extremely dangerous. One study of male police officers in Buffalo found that, because of on-the-job stress, the average life expectancy of police officers was 22 years shorter than the average male residents. A study by MIT suggests that the wealthiest Americans live 10.1 years longer than the poorest citizens. Clearly, living or working in stress-filled poor communities has a negative effect on life expectancy. A meta-analysis of 39 studies conducted by Hoffman in 2010 suggested that mindfulness significantly reduced depression and anxiety in patients. A recent study at Pacific University that had 43 police officers participate in an eight-week Mindfulness Based Resiliency Training (MBRT) found that the program significantly reduced stress, fatigue and improved the quality of sleep of participants.
Over the past year, the Dallas Police Department established a mindfulness training program. This program was started in response to the tragic killing of five police officers in 2016. The training uses mindful breathing exercises that help officers focus on their breath, develop a more positive outlook, enhance their ability to focus, reach a higher level of relaxation and develop better control of their emotional reactions. It appears these programs are starting to gain acceptance in suburban districts .The Madison, Wisconsin, Seattle, Washington and Emeryville, Ca., police departments are currently analyzing the results of an eight-week mindfulness program.
However, similar programs for urban residents are virtually non-existent. It is clearly much more difficult logistically to provide mindfulness training to an entire community than it is to provide the training to a police department. However, using mindfulness to address UTSD is as important in urban communities as it is in urban police departments. Many residents tragically suffer from an intense form of UTSD that negatively impacts their ability to succeed in school and excel at work.
Unfortunately, very few government agencies provide funding for mindfulness training. The research suggests that one effective way to improve police and community relations is to implement mindfulness type programs that help individuals rewire their brain to overcome the effects of UTSD. These programs have the potential to significantly improve the quality of life in urban communities.
Dr. Dale G. Caldwell is the Executive Director of the Friends of PTSDJournal and the author of Intelligent Influence: The 4 Steps of Highly Successful Leaders and Organizations.