When we think of resilience in police officers, our minds naturally go to concepts such as mindfulness, one’s ability to reappraise a traumatic experience into one of success, or the ability to bounce back after going through a challenging experience among other thoughts. Current trends perceive resilience through a biopsychosocial lens and yet how much has bio explored the trait of resilience? Is it genetic? Can resilience be learned or even acquired? And if so, what parts of the brain play a part in the successful, resilient processing of our experience as police officers?
One academic article I recently came across explores just that! The article, Structural Brain Correlates of Resilience to Traumatic Stress in Dutch Police Officers by van der Werff et al. (2017), discusses aspects of the brain related to the cognitive functioning of our positive emotional experience; basically, the ability to feel like a positive “contributor” in situations of trauma. The authors explain how gray matter, white matter and neural pathways/myelination within are involved with resilience, what they initially believed would be the results of their study, and what they actually found. Because what they found was quite different from what they expected!
By virtue of our profession, we are going to experience traumatic events. How we conceptualize these events, how we transform what we saw, process and then believe, becomes our experience. And this occurs whether we see them as traumatic at the time or not. I have experienced events that seemed quite low key and even routine that deeply affected me afterward. The psychopathology that may result from processing these traumatic events can take us away from the passion of our policing work on a short-term basis or long-term basis on disability. Many studies explore the vulnerable aspects we may have as police officers; however, the neuro-biological pieces are somewhat new.
This takes me back to my OAC year of biology with my favourite teacher Ms. Jorgensen, who was the only teacher that kept my attention in our first 8 AM class of the day. She explained that progression and cognitive/physical development in children was not a matter of how intelligent they were, but when those applicable neural pathways were myelinated. Myelinated?? What is that? Ms. Jorgensen explained that this is the fatty sheath that coats a nerve and supports the transmission of the message from one area to another area of the brain to accomplish the task.
So as an example, a skill we learn in defensive tactics and/or firearms is partially as a result of nerves being myelinated. Basically, the ability to line up our target between our sites and slowly pull the trigger while maintaining that steady aim as we shoot our firearm is present as a result of the myelination of that particular neural pathway. My thought is, if this type of skill is acquired and present in this way, I wonder if resilience may develop as a result of nerve myelination and practice as well?
The article in question explains the research that was conducted within the Dutch police service about traumatic incidents concerning the brain that result in resilience or positive emotion for some. The basic conclusion is that grey and white matter size, which were thought to be greater in those with greater resilience, were found to be the same size. However what was different was the myelination of the fibres in the white brain matter. This fatty sheath was found to be thicker on neural pathways in the white brain matter fibres of those who are able to reframe a traumatic experience with positive emotion in Dutch police officers. The thicker the myelination on these neural pathways, the greater the ability to reframe the experience into a positive one equating to greater resilience!
The next time you notice a colleague who appears to handle what most would experience as trauma genuinely well or that colleague who is not managing life well, remind yourself that it may be due to this myelination of neural pathways. This occurs on its own biological schedule no differently than puberty and is not reflective of the level of intelligence or even actual ability to learn and develop a particular skill set. Let’s keep this in mind and share this tidbit of interesting information as we support our colleagues on this mental health journey in policing.
About the Author
Retired York Regional Police Officer, Mental Health Practitioner & Founder/Director of The Haven
Michelle is a recently retired York Regional Police Officer, mental health practitioner and the Founder/Director of The Haven, Ontario’s first non-profit, occupational-specific, inpatient treatment centre for first responders and uniform personnel. She has a consulting practice in the implementation of mental health and workplace reintegration programming for First Responders. Michelle is a mental health practitioner with a specialization in understanding the cultural dynamics of first responder members and their organizations. She is a PhD Candidate in Forensic Psychology with a specialization in crisis response and loves to blend her academic and policing experience in her writing.