Throughout the news, community policing grants, and the latest issue of Police Chief Magazine from the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), you will find a theme surrounding the essential skills of today’s law enforcement professionals. That language includes words like empathy, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness—stressing the importance of an emotionally regulated and sympathetic first responder. But what is emotional intelligence, and why does it matter?
Emotional intelligence, sometimes referred to as emotional quotient (EQ), generally refers to the ability for a person to identify and manage their own emotions as well as understand and help others with theirs. In the military community, managing one’s emotions was often referred to as “maintaining your military bearing” — a diplomatic way of saying don’t lose your cool and punch out your Lieutenant even if they deserve it. And while that’s good career advice, it leaves out the science behind knowing when you’re about to.
Interoception is the brain’s way of sensing what’s happening in the body
If you’ve ever felt a lump in your throat before delivering a public speech, or felt like your heart was about to explode after a foot pursuit, you’ve experienced interoception—the brain’s often subconscious ability to allow us to sense when our body is experiencing something. This sense can tell us when we need to eat or drink, use the bathroom, or even when we need to have a difficult conversation with a loved one. When our physiology is working effectively and we’re getting the rest and nourishment we need, interoception is a healthy way for us to navigate our day.
That natural function in a healthy brain can let us down when acute, delayed-onset or chronic trauma happens. In law enforcement and military, something like an officer-involved shooting (OIS) or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can impact our ability to sense signals that we need to be aware of. For some, this can be described as “feeling nothing.”
“People who maintain a prolonged chronic stress state lose the ability to properly regulate the normal stress-response cycle,” says Dr. Emma Sarro, who received her PhD in Neuroscience from New York University and works on the research team at the NeuroLeadership Institute. “If the stress keeps them on alert for longer, the part of the cycle that acts to enable an appropriate level of response and bring them back to a normal state malfunction, so they can lose their ability to respond normally to new stressors. That can present in either hyper-reaction or numbness to respond–both are maladaptive or inappropriate responses.”
Sensing emotional signals helps us process and respond to situations at hand
One way to develop or re-engage interoception is to bring it to a low-stakes and psychologically safe learning space, like the MILO training room. By placing officers in stress-inoculation environments, to include those where potentially emotion-triggering scenarios may be involved, trauma-informed instructors can facilitate debriefs designed to bring awareness to emotional signals the brain may be sending, or worse, not sending. Over time, and with practice, this skill can enhance the way we respond to our own needs and the needs of others.
The work of police and military is stressful enough. Agencies that use their training time to develop skills like emotional intelligence through interoception will pay dividends at work, in the community, and at home.
This blog was reviewed for accuracy by MILO Cognitive Advisory Board member Dr. Joy VerPlanck, who received her doctorate in educational technology from Central Michigan University and works with the NeuroLeadership Institute to combine brain science with MILO’s immersive simulation training.