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Duty Positive: Is Optimism Possible in the Public Safety Professions?

Author: Michael E. Ludwig, Ph.D., Institute for Applied Public Safety Psychology

Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content

Date: 2012-12-20
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A child is severely burned in an automobile crash. A man loses a limb in an industrial accident. A woman is severely beaten by an abusive husband. A judge throws out a high profile drug case on a technicality. It’s all in a day’s work for a Public Safety Professional (PSP), and where most people might never experience one of the unfortunate events mentioned above within their lifetime, the men and women serving in our Public Safety professions (military, police, fire safety, EMS, et al.) see and experience them every day. Theirs is a life lived in the fray, and it takes its toll.

Although it might not be completely visible, we know that daily exposure to these very negative events can significantly impact the mind, body, and soul of the ones whose responsibility it is to provide service and security in times of crisis. Quietly, they carry their burdens, and quite often they suffer the effects in private as the stress, fatigue, and trauma accumulate. Negative coping mechanisms include denial, projection, cynicism, stoicism, and escape. Consequently, one might ask: Is Optimism Possible in the Public Safety Professions?

The answer to this question can be a resounding “Yes,” provided we are able to equip our PSPs and their families with the right guidance and tools to assist them through the difficulties they face. This article will focus upon a tool we might call an “optimal mindset” which is derived from insights gained from the field of psychology.

Psychology has come a long way in its relatively short career (a little over 100 years) in addressing modern day situations with greater specificity and precision. One critical shift has been in regard to the question of determinism, which asks if human beings are free to act volitionally, or are they controlled and destined by certain internal factors. Modern approaches lean much more towards the idea of choice versus destiny, and these models have led to a huge leap forward for applied psychology. As I am fond of saying to many of my Clients and Patients, “You own your mind, your mind does not own you.” 

Therefore, we can apply these evolved understandings in the context of an Applied Public Safety Psychology that takes up the cause of assisting PSPs and their families in negotiating the challenges they face that are unique and often specific to their lifestyles and experiences. These “psychological nuances” form the basis of our efforts to understand the inner experiences of PSP’s and the issues that can often arise in the fulfillment of their duties. Some examples of these specific identifiers might include heightened work stress, public pressure, shift work, dietary irregularity, cynicism, and trauma.

With a deeper understanding of these dynamics, we are then able to consider more advanced means of prevention and intervention. Here is where we might turn to the concept of an “optimal mindset.” Allow me to illustrate:

As a former military member and police officer, I have witnessed and assisted within every scenario provided in the introduction to this article. After the “Rookie Syndrome” wore off, I also found myself experiencing every one of the effects mentioned previously (I have found that many PSPs pass through similar phases in their careers). In the midst of this transition I decided to run an experiment. What if I were to begin looking at all that was good about being a PSP? What if I accepted the negatives as “part and parcel” of the job, but chose to not let them prevail as the predominant aspects of my work?

While changing my viewpoint, I also decided to begin making changes in my lifestyle that would make my work life easier. My approach followed a Mind, Body, Soul model. Physically, I began to eat a healthier diet, exercise, and manage sleep more effectively. Bodily health is essential in working through the shift from “zero to sixty” that typically occurs in the Public Safety realm. Mentally, I would prepare myself for my shifts by listening to inspiring music while visualizing positive outcomes for the encounters I would soon experience. Spiritually, I would pray and meditate in a way that would highlight the meaning of my work as a means of contributing to the betterment of humanity.

Suddenly, the turn towards boredom and cynicism was transformed to a sincere enjoyment of the work, and an appreciation for the opportunity to be a part of something so significant. This made the negatives seem far less significant, and it provided a new energy and impetus to continue to serve.

Notice here that the job itself had not changed. The same negative happenings still occurred, the tensions remained, and the system still failed at times. What had changed was the way I chose to view the elements of my work, and where I would decide to focus my energy and attention. By purposefully altering my “mindset,” I dramatically enhanced my experience. I also found that I had become a better public servant.

This example is one means of demonstrating how we might go about understanding and incorporating an “optimal mindset” in our work. From it we can derive a few simple practices that can assist us with experiencing more fulfillment and contentment in our vocational lives:

Open your mind to the possibility of a new viewpoint inspired by optimism.

Evaluate your life dynamics utilizing the Mind, Body, Soul model. Identify areas of conflict and/or imbalance.

Make a conscious decision to make positive changes in these areas.

Continue to decide where you will focus your attention and energy. Choose the best and leave the rest.

Enjoy our work and service to society. Be proud of who you are and what you do!

While these considerations merely scratch the surface of the Applied Public Safety Psychology domain, it is my hope that it might encourage PSPs and their families to begin studying and practicing the many concepts and practices that are available to them via this specialty. I also encourage Supervisors to consider how emotionally healthier PSPs can promote an overall healthier Public Safety Agency.

Optimism is definitely possible with the Public Safety professions and we now have at our disposal the means to develop and foster it. “Optimal mindset” is a great place to begin. 


Dr. Mik Ludwig is a military, police, and private security Veteran who went on to become a Psychological Researcher and Outpatient Psychotherapist specializing in research, publication, and application of Applied Public Safety Psychology. He lives and practices in South-Central Pennsylvania. Follow the Applied Public Safety Psychology Facebook page at:


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